Think! - 201: Where's Your Head At?

Published: 25 July, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 201, July, 2011

This issue, we ask the eternal question – who owns the heart of tattoo? There are probably far too many strands to this question to pull them all into one article, but the question bears asking all the same – and then it's up to you to decide where you stand...

In the early 1970s, Jamaican immigrant Clive Campbell, aka DJ Kool Herc, began throwing dance parties in New York City’s Bronx borough. Campbell’s parties and innovative mixing techniques gave a creative outlet to the local disenfranchised and poverty stricken black youth, who found that rather than following the lure of crime and gang involvement, battles could be waged on the dance floor via breakdancing. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, these parties formed the basis of Hip Hop culture, 

a culture that would eventually include MCing, breakdancing, DJing and graffiti tagging. Hip Hop moved swiftly from this point forward, transforming practically overnight into different variations, all the while maintaining and promoting its core concepts of positivity, community
and self-expression.  

Today, what began as a humble form of expression in backyard parties and dancehalls is now a multi-million dollar industry. Its principal artists have amassed the majority of their fortunes not with their music, but with the products they attach their names to. Everything from energy drinks to cologne is out there for brand hungry consumers. A 2011 report by Forbes magazine found that rap mogul P.Diddy’s net worth stands at $475 million, with Jay-Z in a not too distant second place at $450 million.  Hip Hop’s co-opting can be taken as a valuable lesson for the tattoo industry or as incentive to follow in its footsteps.  

Similarities between the two art forms are surprisingly close. First and foremost, tattoo also comes from humble beginnings intended to help a small group of outcasts and social misfits find their niche, sometimes turning them away from a life of crime, other times simply allowing them to recognise their talent in an art form that so few understood. A 2006 study by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that 1/4 of American adults aged 18-50 have a tattoo, while the BBC now states that 1/3 of British adults have been inked. Celebrities flaunt their tattoos to the media who duly eat it up; reality TV suggests that anyone with a television can instantly understand what the tattoo industry is all about; and even British Prime Minister David Cameron’s wife, Samantha, is tattooed. For some, this inclusion in everyday regular life is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to tattoo. For others, mainstream success sounds a warning alarm. Is tattoo officially cracked wide open? Is there anything left to salvage? 

Dating back as far as 4,000 years, tattoo’s success certainly didn’t occur overnight. Its origins were in cultural traditions and rites of passage, but by the 19th century, one country’s cultural traditions became another country’s status symbol. Japan had opened up to wealthy Western tourists who soon discovered traditional Japanese tattoo. Eager for something exotic and new, these vacationing Westerners began getting small, expensive tattoos from Japanese artists, which were flaunted as status symbols upon their return to Europe and America. By the commencement of World War I, the appeal of tattoo began to find its way to enlisted soldiers. Slowly, what had originally been an exclusive club of the tattooed wealthy elite was now putting down roots amongst the working class. 

Naturally, the early tattooists did not face the same issues of media as their modern counterparts do. This is not to suggest that publicity did not exist, though it was hardly at the level it currently is today. One of the first tattooists to feel outright disdain for the spotlight was the legendary American tattoo pioneer Norman K. “Sailor Jerry” Collins. To suggest that Collins was as rough and tumble of a bastard as the old school industry he helped to form is an understatement. Collins was old school tattoo through and through, from his earliest days tattooing in the bustling mob run neighbourhood of Chicago’s South State Street. 

By the time the Americans joined World War II, Collins was already settled in the midst of Honolulu’s Chinatown, in the sleazy Hotel Street district where soldiers indulged in drugs, drinks, sex, gambling and of course, tattoos. It was a world completely different than that which the regular citizenry understood or ever experienced and yet at the same time, it was as close to mainstream as Sailor Jerry would ever want to be.

These histories and steep lineage are exactly what reinforces the protective element in today’s industry by artists who don’t wish to see their art form succumb to the lure of corporate cash-ins and celebrity posturing. Tattoo has spent the vast majority of its lifespan thus far firmly removed from the spotlight – often not by its own desire and as a result, it has learned to be completely independent of the need for the general public’s acceptance. With what has practically been an overnight rise in tattoo’s popularity, the longing by many within the industry for a return to the past is rapidly being buried by glam and glitz. 

There are numerous theories as to when the spotlight really became fixated on tattoo, but it’s arguable that American tattooist Lyle Tuttle’s work on musicians like Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones in the '60s and '70s had an impact on the celebrity culture that would play a major role in the art form’s future. Regardless, the eventual celebrity love affair with tattoo was not enough to bring things to the current level of exposure. That would require a far more pervasive method, one by which millions could safely observe tattoo from the comfort of their own homes. 

Television’s Miami Ink really set the standard for the tattoo reality TV programme, leading to London Ink, NY Ink and of course, most notoriously, LA Ink. With their slick production values, cheeky editing and emphasis on daily dramas in and around the tattoo studio, tattoo reality programmes took the rebel image and scored big, diluting it just enough for family friendly viewing and securing a devoted fanbase. Unfortunately, these programmes are all too often a mere glimpse into the tattoo industry, with producers going more for the manufactured drama than actual substance. There’s a rather strong air of image building here, on one hand erasing the negative stereotypes of tattoo, but replacing it instead with something far more fickle and dubious.

This sort of exposure to the tattoo industry has helped to create a definite boom in tattoo, but if reality TV has played a role in increasing this popularity, then it can’t plead ignorance on any negative influence it has also had. The levels to which DIY tattoos have risen are yet to be measured, as no official figures currently exist. However, a recent article on the BBC news website insists that professional tattooists are increasingly being sought out to do cover up work on bungled amateur tattoo jobs. Add that to the fact that DIY tattoo kits are easily procured on the Internet for as little as £30, and the components of image, easy access and demand all mix for a problematic situation. 

Modern society’s need for instant gratification clearly does not mesh with the time honoured and painstaking process that is tattoo. As any tattooist worth his or her salt can tell you, a tattoo is not a decision to be taken lightly. For the modern, media darling image of tattoo however, having to actually contemplate a tattoo is a rather annoying roadblock. In order to successfully navigate this hurdle, the tattoo removal industry is doing its damnedest to innovate and create products that make tattoo removal as simple as removing a bandage. According to a 2007 article in the Smithsonian Magazine, a company called Freedom-2 has developed tattoo ink that can be removed with a single laser treatment. Freedom-2’s CEO Martin Schmieg says, “The number one reason people don’t get a tattoo is permanence. When you remove that issue, we believe there will be a natural growth in the number of people getting tattoos.” Yet there’s something soulless about tattoos that can be gotten and removed on a whim, without so much as a thought regarding the time and effort that the artist put into it. This relegates tattoo’s place as an ancient art form to a mere passing whim, eradicating the value of its intimacy and permanency while disregarding the inherent commitment involved in the process. 

It would seem that in this situation, where an industry’s soul is at stake, that guidance could be found in the veterans of tattoo. In many cases, this can still be true, but in the case of Ed Hardy, his rise to international stardom is perhaps one of the best examples of tattoo going from humble beginnings to mainstream glam. Hardy’s beginnings were indeed at the basis of an industry that was still far from being socially acceptable. Mentored by an aging Sailor Jerry, Hardy contends in Erich Weiss’ 2008 documentary, Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry, that the “dark side” which tattoo embodied in the very early days of American tattoo was all “part of the fun of it”. Oddly enough, if Hardy himself contends that the dark side of this industry was part of the fun, why then did he help to shift its focus to the exact opposite of that? 

As of April 27, 2011 Hardy has sold 85% of the master license for the Ed Hardy brand to Inconix Brand Group for $55 million dollars. The remaining 15% of the company still belongs to Hardy. Iconix expects the brand to generate $15-16 million a year in royalty payments. Hardy’s sole connection to his clothing and product lines is the licensing of his designs to French designer Christian Audigier, who then places them on apparel and everything from shirts, to hats, to computer cases and even condoms. Hardy’s transference of tattoo into a commodity is a complete 180 for someone who once held the legends of tattoo and the process itself in such high esteem. If these are the examples that young, up and coming tattooists have to look up to, the prospects for an industry that chases more than money and glamour is indeed grim.

Despite all this negativity however, there is without a doubt a very dedicated and hardworking core in this industry, doing everything it can to keep tattoo on the level. The battles they face are steep, and in addition to first and foremost maintaining focus on their work, there’s the additional concept of image constantly rearing its head, confusing the matter. Speaking in Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry, tattooist Keith Underwood said: “…what kind of always made me love tattooing was that sort of criminal aspect, you know, like all the being real legitimate now is not… I don’t necessarily think a great thing, you know, I mean, I really like the rough and tumble tattoo shop image…” 

This is of course, completely understandable. The longing for a previous time is only natural given what often feels like corruptive forces at work within the industry. It’s a continuous desire to rebel against the accepted notions of status quo. But is this fascination and longing for image any better if it is applied to the past rather than the present? Whether it’s a flashy image or a rough and tumble one, shouldn’t it all be about more than just an image? Shouldn’t the integrity and commitment of an artist be enough to keep the heart of this industry intact? 

In 2008, tattooist Johnny Anderson was denied the right to open a tattoo studio in Hermosa Beach, California on the basis that the city does not permit tattoo studios within its limits. Anderson sued, arguing that his First Amendment rights to exercise artistic expression were being denied. He lost the first case, then appealed the verdict to a federal appeals court, where in September of 2010 he won and was awarded the right to open his studio. This wasn’t done for publicity, nor was it done for an image. These were the acts of an artist demanding the right to operate a business in order to perform the art form that he loves and to make a living doing it. It’s hard to imagine a purer example of what tattoo could mean to someone. Acts such as these push the industry forward, but not toward the spotlight. People like Johnny Anderson are fighting the battles that no reality TV star will ever have to fight. And Anderson is just one of many artists quietly dealing with more day-to-day reality than any reality TV programme could ever hope to experience.

In addition to this, the industry is also currently in a position in which it can rework the mainstream success of tattoo to its own advantage. The city of Toronto, Canada recently made news when its health department decided that it would begin regulating its tattoo industry. For the first time ever, Toronto’s tattooists will require a license and their shop’s existence will be kept on the books for yearly inspections. In the UK, registering studios with the environmental health department as well as yearly inspections are all par for the course, but many countries, provinces and states still have no regulation. Though sometimes costly, regulation can only benefit the industry, eliminating shady, corner cutting shops. If image is indeed an important aspect of tattoo, then the image of tattoo studios as clean and responsible places of business surely isn’t a bad thing. Concern over the rise in DIY tattooing has lead British MP, Madeleine Moon, to campaign for tougher controls on DIY tattoo kits purchased over the Internet. If the mainstream is listening, isn’t it the tattoo community’s responsibility to tell them what’s wrong? The more voices raised in concern over issues that affect them, the more likely that things will change. Certainly the bandwagon jumpers and corporate vultures are not about to do anything more substantial for the industry than commission another reality TV show or link a product tie-in of some sort, and there will always be those artists who claim to care about tattoo while doing everything within their power to cash in. There’s no getting around these truths, but the sooner that the tattoo community can abandon the concern over image in favour of a focus on the art form and its processes (and many tattooists already do this, make no mistake about it), the less marketable it will be to those whose number one concern is a cash grab. 

Yes, the heyday of Sailor Jerry and others like him produced an underground subculture that was perceived of as dangerous and rough. The lessons that time period taught can be salvaged, but unfortunately not its zeitgeist. As filmmaker Woody Allen recently said when asked if he would prefer to live in the '20s, when life was simpler: “It’s a big trap to think living in an earlier time would be better. You only extrapolate the nice things.” Today’s advancements in the industry as a whole can’t be ignored and embracing these advancements does not have to mean selling out. Whether chasing a glamorous or rough and tumble image, the tendency to be caught up in either concept is both a disservice and a distraction. Beneath all the glitz and glam of this new industry, there is still an old, beaten up and crotchety heart. It’s there for whomever wants it and as absent as it needs to be toward the undeserving. It may take months or even years, but when the bandwagon finally fills up and breaks down, the true core of this industry will still be there plugging away, asking for nothing in return but the respect its traditions rightly deserve.


Text: Mike Jones; Photography: As Credited