In At the Deep End - 196

Published: 25 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 196, March, 2011

For me, art came first and writing came later, I began to write only when I needed a method for expressing the lessons that the art had taught me. I’ve spent the last ten years exploring, negotiating and examining the space and defining the relationship between fine art and tattoo art.

And recently, British Sunday newspaper, The Observer, dipped its newsprint stained toe into my well-swum waters by publishing a short article on art and tattoos, featuring New York based tattoo artist, Thomas Hooper. 

The article reports, with a tone of surprise, the cost of a large-scale custom tattoo and the inclusion of tattoo art in a gallery context, the phrasing suggesting that this is a new phenomenon. Neither of these subjects are remotely noteworthy over here in tattoo-land, we are well aware that tattoos are just as (and often more) accomplished as anything classified as fine art and we’ve already seen outsiders attempt to subsume tattoo imagery into fashion and art. Fine art has been borrowing tattoo iconography for decades, putting it on public display without regard to consequences and with very little respect for those of us passionate about tattoos as an art form.

Independent columnist and contemporary fine artist, Tracey Emin, has featured Polaroid photographs of her own small, flash tattoos in a limited edition print that displays her anchors and flower tattoos with an accompanying “hand written” text detailing her regret, “People sometimes ask me if I regret my tattoos, the answer is of course I do… the last thing I want is some images showing some points from my life that have stopped me from being”. Unable to rub out her own history, Emin dislikes her tattoos because they remind her of who she believes she once was, but is no longer. But what does she think her art does? Surely the paintings we make, the photographs we take and the objects we collect also demonstrate who we are at that particular point in time. Emin is not a new and different person; she has simply placed herself into a new context. Our identities present and future are shaped by our histories and past experiences, decisions, choices successes and failures. No matter how much we may believe that we have changed, we are still the same person, we have simply moved forwards.  You can believe that your tattoos hold you back, like Emin does, or you can believe that they are a marker of where you are and where you’ve been. It’s not about facts, but attitude.

Another artist that has utilized tattoos in fine art is Douglas Gordon. By commissioning a tattoo, reading “guilty” in mirrored lettering on a body double and then photographing the stand in person beside a mirror (For Reflection, 1997) Gordon has used the indelibility of the tattoo to reinforce negative connotations In this image the permanence of the medium is used to state that remorse is impossible. 

That the artist has not committed their own skin to the piece seems especially exploitative and without that commitment there is none of the integrity or authenticity that a tattoo enthusiast or artist finds in the permanent mark. Gordon’s work at best, ignores, or worse, willfully misuses the sub culturally specific context.

Another example of the contemporary arts utilizing the tattoo medium are the exhibits that invite non-tattoo artists to design emblems for etching on to a volunteers skin. The past participating artists have approached this without the perspective of those whose art is permanent so many of them have produced works that are problematic when translated into dermal art. Some of these issues have been technical; others are questionable in their content or in the specificity of the artist’s directions. Some artists have even been belligerent or egotistical, submitting pornographic images or their own signature or associated logo – they have not been aware of the personal commitment and great responsibility required in marking a body for it’s lifetime duration, or of the trust based relationship exhibited by tattooer and tattooee or the difficulties of life with a public skin tattoo. 

So it’s clear that his irresponsible use of tattoo iconography and the use of the medium of tattooing itself by non-tattoo artists needs to be redressed by those who live the tattoo life and understand it’s nuances, those that are willing to be accountable for their actions. It makes perfect sense that a gallery stacked with tattoo imagery would eventually start to look for the authentic originator, the tattoo artist. 

And today’s tattooers are just as often from an art school background as anywhere else, Thomas Hooper studied at Camberwell College of Art while I attended rival South London Art School, Goldsmiths. Thomas was a year ahead of me and it gave us much to talk about while he worked on my upper back piece, my own Tattoo Art meets Fine Art tribute, if you will, a tattoo that encompasses both traditions, a rendering of Jacopo Bassano’s 1542 oil painting of The Last Supper, an image that in turn acknowledges the tattooed circus people of the 1800’s.

So Hooper is perhaps the perfect example of a tattooer that stands astride an old division and perhaps a short, mainstream news piece will, if not change perceptions, at least challenge a few to examine why they hold the opinions and prejudices that they do. 

Not that we need take offence, it would be untruthful to say that we all seek mainstream validation or approval, the fact that tattoos remain a little bit outsider, a little bit dangerous and definitely not for everyone, ensure that tattoos will never be completely subsumed into fine art, as Alex Binnie reminds us in a quote from the Observer article, “To a degree, the fine art world has jumped on it, but a tattoo has no resale value, that is crucial”. 

It is this lack of commodity that will always prevent tattooing becoming an art fad. Us devotees know, that we, like the art itself, are forever.


Text: Paula Hardy Kangelos