Recently I was invited to a friend’s end of year show at Chester University. Cath – the friend in question - had studied for her Fine Art Degree for three years and this was hers and the other students’ chance to show off their talents. Cath is an apprentice tattooist working under the tutelage of Jon from Vivid Tattoo Arts in Buckley. So Cath decided to do her final piece using tattoo images and video footage of her mentor working on her own design.
The day of the exhibition came and the students were all busy putting the final touches to their work and Cath and Jon stood back and admired their hard work. Satisfied with her work Cath left happy that everything that could be done for the night was in place.
She arrived back that evening with plenty of time before the opening of the exhibition to find that her tutors and head of department had taken it upon themselves to dismantle her display. Obviously she was beside herself, and went to find the tutors to ask for an explanation and was told that her display was ‘too extreme and obscene’. When questioned further the head of the art department said that ‘tattooing is not an art form’. His exact words were; ‘It can’t be art if you can’t put a frame around it’. How narrow-minded can you get? Surely a head of art in a very well respected University should be encouraging his students to explore all forms media as art? Not so here. Especially as another student’s exhibit, not more than four foot away featured very explicit images of female genitalia, which apparently was acceptable in the eyes of the university.
As you can imagine Cath was devastated and had to make the most of what was left of her display as the rest of her work had been locked away in a cupboard.
I was livid for her, as she had obviously put so much work into her finals. I tried to speak to the ignoramus (read ‘head of department’) but he declined to speak to me saying he was too busy. Cath and her friends put on a brave face, but I could see she was torn apart inside.
Over the years I have interviewed many of the worlds top tattoo artists and many have said they have come upon this kind of prejudice when the subject of art and tattooing are combined in the same sentence.
Cath has now put this setback behind her and is concentrating on her career as a promising tattooist, and I for one know she will go that extra mile to make it as a tattooist and more power to her elbow for putting up with these small-minded art snobs. Here’s Cath’s story in her own words...
When I enrolled at Chester University I envisioned myself surrounded by budding artists. I led myself to believe that I’d be whiling away the hours discussing all the different art forms springing from a range of imaginations and backgrounds.
No such luck. I was a complete outcast and so was my work. They were just simply not interested in so much as accepting tattooing as an art form. They’d talk about art like they’d read about it in a book. There was no thought or feeling in it. They either went for shocking or simple or both.
By this point I was hanging on by my fingernails to something I was beginning to hate. I loved the art, style and meaning of tattooing. They were tearing it to pieces in front of me.
The arguments raged on well into my second year and at one point I just took a year out. Tattooing, apparently readers, is ‘designated to subcultures.’ I tried in vain to ask them how they justified their acceptance of graffiti art that prides itself on being on the outside of the law. Artists such as Banksy have opened doors to the world of graffiti and are now classed as an art form by university lecturers and departmental heads worldwide. Canvasses emblazoned with fiery skulls, dragons and text decorate many a students portfolio. Yet to them tattooing was nothing more than a “modern fad.” It’s a good job they don’t teach history! As I’m sure you already know the true roots of graffiti stretch back to around the 1960’s. Tattooing pre-dates Christianity.
It’s true that fine art isn’t foremost concerned with the quality of work it recognizes, yet the purity and discipline a piece of work shows is crucial to its integrity. A tattoo requires discipline from both artist and canvass, and the TRUE tattooists today can rival any modern or fine art.
It is also true that Fine Art tends to exclude forms, which could be categorized as a craft yet Chester University openly includes textiles.
I just didn’t know where I stood, but as always, Jon was on hand to help me out. I’d had my mind buried so much in the little digs of criticism, I hadn’t realized the bigger issues. It reminded me of when you look at the same image for too long and it turns into a bunch of dots. Jon helped me take a step back and take in the whole picture. Rather than my fellow (and I use that term loosely) students, I found myself whiling away the hours with Jon. Discussing all the ‘arty farty’ stuff I’d been craving to talk about. Only this was different, he wasn’t reciting the same well-used line out of a tired old book. He was telling me about his 20 years of tattooing and how he’d gone through the same problems at Art College. We went to Amsterdam to meet his old friends at Hanky Panky’s tattoo studio, the walls covered in pictures of people like Keith ‘Prodigy’ and Kirk Hamnett from Metallica. This was no used up old quote, this was living and breathing it. Jon rejuvenated me and put me back on my path. From this point there was no way I was giving up. Even if it did cost me my degree. Jon told me….
“The older folk that teach these days are still in the mentality that we scar people down at the docks, not realizing that I’m as qualified as any of the lecturers as an artist. The evidence is there whether my work is any good for anyone that is qualified to understand what they’re seeing. Where as if a lecturer makes a mistake some struggling student has to pay for it by failing. And they just carry on regardless the next year. It’s true there are a lot of scratchers out there; every decent artist like myself is surrounded by them. They buy a kit on eBay with a leaflet saying….‘you too can be a tattooist!’ and these are the amateurs that bring our craft into disrepute.”
So then I showed them the work of Paul Booth, Jack Ribeiro, Robert Hernandez and Victor Portugal. They thought it was ‘great’, ‘dynamic’ and some of it ‘very (Hieronymus) Bosch indeed!’ Then when I told them ‘these people are tattooists’ and showed them their work on skin it was instantly a ‘modern fad.’
I decided to take it further and e-mailed some of our well-known tattoo artists of whom Guy Aitchison replied…
“You will run into that problem; some folks are simply not open to considering our art form, regardless of its amazingly long history. Anyway, here is a semifinal draft for the introduction of a new edition of a book I’m writing; you may be able to chop this up and distill it into the quotes you need. Best of luck and let me know how it goes. G”
This was the second boost I needed, so here’s a few quotes out of the introduction he sent me.
Reinventing The Tattoo, Second Edition
Chapter 1.1/ Introduction/ A History of Change
‘The art of tattooing took a long time to find its place in the world despite its powerful potential. Hidden away in geographically secluded subcultures, tattooing idled away quietly for millennia, unaware of the wealth of artistic richness waiting just outside its cultural isolation. Its rather mystical allure beckoned to travelers and traders, yet its taboo qualities and slightly intimidating methods were enough to keep it hidden away from all but the most daring.
Tattooing has evolved into a full-fledged artistic medium that is plugged into a global network and applied with an endless variety of sophisticated techniques. Nurtured in an environment of economic prosperity, combined with freedom of expression and the diverse influence of thriving subcultures worldwide, contemporary tattooing is arguably one of the fastest and explosive renaissances ever known in the history of art. As we continue to mix and match our arts and technologies at a faster and faster pace, it is not difficult to envision even more exciting and innovative developments in the near future’.
I finally made it to the final degree show and Jon and I were working away at putting my work up when….
“You can’t put that up, it’s not appropriate” I heard an ever so familiar voice echo from behind me. But by now I was numb to the constant criticism that had surrounded me for three years. My part of the show went through three stages (ironically enough) despite the actual examination form reading “The display is entirely down to the student.” Jon stood up in front of John Renshaw and asked him “How can you not call it an art form when it out-dates anything you’ve ever studied?” He was silent! Praise the lord or Satan or whomever he actually shut up!
The degree show went well in the end. Neil was darting about with his camera and a few students (I wished I’d met earlier) loved what I’d done. A few of the ‘daddy bought me a new pony’ crew however were mortified I’d been allowed to put it up. You know the ones; a tattoo is like buying a new pair of shoes to them.
In the very end though I didn’t get my degree. They palmed me off with a certificate of higher education. But I don’t care. The tattoo world is where I belong and I’m glad I got under their skin while I got the chance. I’d rather be sat here writing this article knowing I stood by my beliefs than stood on a stage holding what would be a worthless degree.
The last words go to Guy Aitchison:
‘Please keep in mind that the resistance you are experiencing is proof positive of our art form’s power and mystery. Easily palatable things vanish quickly; are readily digested and crapped out. We are engaged in something with more substance than that’.
Good luck with everything! G
Enough said I think...
Cath is interested in anyone who has come across this sort of prejudice. If you have experienced similar attitudes, she’d love to hear from you: email@example.com