In At the Deep End - 199: The Web of Deceit

Published: 31 May, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 199, May, 2011

A recent article in The Independent, ostensibly about a charity providing tattoo removal services made a direct link between tattoos and self-harm. It was an average mainstream newspaper article, not favourable in its discussion of tattoos but not offensively critical either, however, one statement stood out:

Those bemoaning the mainstream attention afforded to tattoo art, concerned by the proliferation of studios and horrified by the number of hopeless aspiring apprentices often blame tattoo TV shows – thinking of these phenomenon as the Miami Ink effect. But a staged documentary on a back of beyond channel is perhaps not the bogeyman we imagine it to be. Instead there is something far more widespread, far more accessible and perhaps far more damaging to the tattoo world, something that's in all our homes. The internet.

Everyone is expected to have their portfolio on the web and the web is usually the first port of call when searching for tattoo related information, but it hasn't always been this way. Once, a tattoo artist might have sourced a font online, or researched a language translation, a fan might have used the internet as an image library, but somewhere along the line, it changed from a research tool used in addition to books and shop portfolios, to a talent showcase. The internet is no longer a place to find inspiration on what your next tattoo might be, but instead, who should do it.

This inevitably means that talented tattooers have become internet heroes and others this apparent easy-found fame and aspire to be online tattoo celebrities, too. While this positively encourages many tattooers to up their game, it can also encourage less experienced, new generation artists to tattoo for photographic documentation, aiming to complete a piece in one session, desperate for online compliments, the focus is on the immediate finish, rather than striving for excellence in the tattoo's ongoing longevity.

The easily accessed, quick gratification of the internet comes with other problems too. As the number of tattoo studios has increased, so have those supplying the necessary equipment. Once hard to find items are now easy to obtain online, non-industry general retailers sell previously restricted equipment to anyone. This ease of purchase surely makes it seem as though these items are also easy to use. Disastrous results normally ensue but even these sub standard scratchings are posted online in emulation of talented artists, approved by and complimented on by yet more uninformed people.

In the traditional print media of the tattoo community, only the best tattoos displayed on any given occasion will be published. While this may not always be the very best tattoo art in the world, the quality should never fall below an above average baseline. Yet the internet has everything, good, bad, mediocre, hopefully, interested parties are able to spot the difference between an excellent piece and a poorly executed or drafted tattoo. Unfortunately, it appears that this is not the case.

Now, it's important for me to admit that a great deal of my interest, information and tattoo related friendships have originated online, particularly MySpace in its heyday and the forums at We've discussed almost everything there, from acceptance of tattoos in the workplace to how to tell someone that their tattoo isn't very good. We've talked healing methods and reviewed conventions and showed each other work we've found that has left us in awe. So it wouldn't be right of me to write about tattoos and the internet without referencing the forum and its members. It was a forum discussion centred on the sharing of great tattoo work that came to mind when I read the Smith Street Tattoo blog last week. 

Smith Street Tattoo Parlour in Brooklyn, New York, is home to some very accomplished artists mostly specializing in Traditional Western Tattooing and its related offshoots. These are artists that are known world over through conventions, magazines and internet postings. 

This particular blog entry asks for the public to refrain from reposting images from their website elsewhere, reasons stated being displeasure at their work being displayed alongside tattoos of inferior quality and worse still, images mislabeled as the work of others. 

Disappointingly, when online, people feel absolutely entitled to take whatever they fancy, to save and redistribute at will, without regard to the personal. This is an activity well documented in relation to music files and I believe it usually comes from a place of innocence, a joyful sharing of something that was found pleasing, but sometimes, sadly, it comes from a less innocent place. Many of my friends have had a custom tattoo copied and seeing an image crafted just for you replicated elsewhere, usually to inferior effect, it is an upsetting experience. This thoughtless violation has dissuaded many from showing their personal artwork online and while this is doubtless an effective way to prevent duplication, it’s also rather sad that this should be necessary. 

So what of the tattooer posting their portfolio online? It’s a difficult thing to avoid; so many artists have an online presence that it's almost a requirement for visibility. Many tattooists even use multiple websites, after all, it's a useful way of attracting new customers, demonstrating how your art is evolving and inviting critique from peers. 

To put your work into the public domain for these reasons, only for it to be copied and redisplayed, must be painful, both professionally and personally. Worse still is the discovery that your own photographs have been stolen and passed off as the work of another.

So what’s the answer? Should tattoo artists restrict the viewing of their portfolios to those who visit the shops in which they work, limiting their exposure to local custom and word of mouth reviews? Should an artist’s exposure be restricted to a single magazine article, even if their career goes on to span decades?

Or, perhaps those of us that witness inappropriate behaviour occurring have an obligation to speak out against the image-thieves, unscrupulous suppliers, non-creditors and plain old-fashioned bad tattooists? To debate, discuss, critique and praise? I think so.


Text: Paula Hardy Kangelos