In At the Deep End - 192

Published: 16 November, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 192, November, 2010

"Are those tattoos real?"

The answer is yes. Of course, the answer is yes. In fact, the likelihood of any other answer is very small indeed but that is not why the question is asked, it’s not really a question at all, not a curiosity that requires satisfaction, but rather a statement of incredulity.

What the enquirer is actually thinking is, “I don’t want to believe that those tattoos are real”.

An affirmative answer usually elicits yet another query, it brings out the big guns, the question that even our supportive friends and parents sometimes utter:

“But what will you look like when you are old?”

This particular conundrum appears to occupy the minds of quite a large number of people. The tattoo stands for the idea of forever, or permanence, so it’s not entirely surprising that this a subject that non-tattooed people wish to discuss.

Not me though, I haven’t given it much thought at all but now that I am giving the matter some specific attention, I suppose I will look like an old person with tattoos, a tattooed senior citizen. Perhaps with inappropriate “Heyday hair”, I certainly expect to be a lot wrinkly and a bit blurry.

Possibly, the staff at the nursing home will look at me in disgust. Yet more will consider me with awe. They will nudge and giggle and whisper, “She was a right go-er in her day, that one”. Of course, with the ever increasing popularity of tattooing it is more likely that the staff will have tattoos of their own and I am certain that my fellow residents will also sport permanent ink. We will compare notes in the day room, point out our now-faded favourites and discuss the artists that adorned us in revered tones, tinted with nostalgia. We’ll probably have biscuits, too.

Or, maybe I won’t make it that far. instead, an untimely demise would demonstrate the beautiful paradox that is the tattoo – alarmingly permanent, yet still having a finite lifespan, its mortality at one with our own. Our collections will not be our legacies; we cannot leave our skin anthologies and ink scrapbooks to our grandchildren, instead, they will die with us. The tattoo collector creates an exhibition that is inseparable from its curator, like a writer that features as the protagonist in their own novel, we author our stories with help from our chosen tattoo artists.

Longevity has long been a concern of Fine Art – the collector; the archive and the museum dictate so. Items are stored in light and temperature controlled environments, insects are repelled, objects and paintings are handled and stored carefully. Tattoos are an art form that outsiders perceive as lasting forever, but collectors know that they also need to be treated with care; sun block and moisturiser take the place of the regulated atmosphere of the museum.

Longevity in tattoo art is perceived as crucial and the technical application of the tattoo is fundamental to its success, one of the many reasons that make formal apprenticeships so desirable. A badly made tattoo may “fall out”, a clearly unacceptable occurrence. The phrase “Bold will hold” is a common statement and ancient tribal markings are the first examples that prove the “If it’s bold, it will hold” theory. One colour tattoos such as tā moko - the permanent body and face marking by the Māori - demonstrate how a simple tattoo can last, even in a hot climate.  

Japanese (and later Western Traditional) tattooing has also subscribed to this rule. A well laid out, hand poked or machine made Japanese tattoo is a classic, featuring imagery that does not date and technique that is proven for it’s longevity. Tattoos that feature black shading, considered placement and strong outlines have stood the test of time, allowing the skin art to age gracefully with their owners. 

The larger the design the better, too, the inevitable spreading over time as the tattoo settles into the skin is less noticeable on a large-scale tattoo (and often small lettering is not recommended for this reason).

The makers of the current crop of high colour realist tattoos are often subjected to well meaning, concerned questions about their longevity. Critics of the style are perturbed by its as yet untested lifespan and its disregard of the bold will hold mantra, especially as it is often thought that the secret to a successful tattoo (one that continues to look fresh for many years) is the thick outline featured in traditional tattooing. Tattoos without black outlines are currently considered suspect by some – not yet proven to last and time alone will tell if the significant improvements made in ink and machine technology are sufficient to change the opinions
of traditionalists.

Despite the ongoing perception of tattoos as forever artworks, they are no longer really the permanent art form that they once were. Laser removal technology is improving all the time and tattoos can be reworked, changed and covered. Yet despite these possibilities, tattoos remain conceptually accepted as everlasting. I believe that the art form that we know and love is really as corporeal as the captured pinned and collected butterfly. 

Tattoos are as old as humanity, they will be with us forever and perhaps that’s where their real permanence lies, demonstrated by both their rich history and still and growing future, the tattoo will endure just as Our tattoos symbolise endurance, not just in their staying power but also through the physical act of being tattooed, stamina being required for both the tattooer and the tattooee.

Fine art is measured in artistic movements, tattoo art is measured in human lifetimes, and it’s appropriate that they fade with our youth; perhaps those outlines do not matter after all. Which brings me back to the question:

What will I look like when I am old? The same way I do now, only older. I am my own museum, an archive and a family album all at once. If the exhibits start to look a little tired, well that’s OK with me…


Text: Paula Hardy Kangelos