An Eye is Upon You - 202: Back To School...

Published: 22 August, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 202, August, 2011

There are two trains of thought when it comes to the ‘ink’ shows on TV, but is the latest addition to the genre that fateful step too far?

Tattoo television has become a mainstream phenomenon, The Learning Channels’ ‘Ink’ franchise has spread from Miami to London and these shows have undoubtedly provided a new accessibility, introducing new aspects of tattooing to a wider public and sated those curious about the interior of the tattoo shop and the process of obtaining a tattoo. But not all of the ‘Miami Ink Effect’ is positive – the need for a dramatic narrative overshadows the art, inviting criticism of the reality format in general.

The problem with ‘reality’ television is partly one of language, the ‘realness’ is constantly reinforced by the name of the genre, the close-up camera angles and the use of 'real people' rather than actors, but the actuality of tattooing is rather different to what is depicted on screen. Television collapses time and this makes large-scale tattoos seem a far less arduous task for both customers and artists, a task that doesn't involve waiting lists, multiple appointments and many hours spent under the needle. Also unacknowledged, the monetary commitment required and the time spent healing tattoos. On the other side of the tattoo machine we don't see the labour of drawing and re–drawing, the hours of concentration, the backaches, the endless waiting for late and cancelled appointments, nor any of the necessary health and safety and business protocols.

In short, tattoo television promotes lifestyle over life experience. It emphasises the ‘why’ over the ‘what’ and instead of art we are given narrative, or worse still, drama.

The short lived series Ink Wars took the narrative away from the customers and gave it to the artists by following a tattoo from conception to completion. Ink Wars featured some truly fantastic tattoo artists but placed them into an artificially competitive and time restricted environment – with each tattoo executed in a single sitting at a tattoo convention and subsequently entered into a public vote.

In TLC's latest offering, Tattoo School, the television imposed time restraints are not just inaccurate but also dangerous. Yet to be aired in the UK, the channels’ official website describes Tattoo School as “where students from all walks of life learn how to tattoo in just two weeks. Rookie students, models risking their skin to first-time body artists, a rebellious instructor and unconventional training... who will bear the drama of competition and survive?”

Those with respect for tattooing are well aware that the knowledge required to become a tattoo artist cannot be obtained in a two-week period and that the required skill set takes years to develop. Still, sadly, tattoo schools exist all over the world, not to teach tattooing, but to make quick and easy money from the impatient, the untalented and the uninformed; creating ‘students’ who graduate with a dangerously small amount of information and even less health and safety experience. Television viewers whose experience of the tattoo world is limited to what they have witnessed on screen may believe that tattoo schools are a legitimate path to becoming a tattoo artist, so for TLC to broadcast this unethical practice is unquestionably irresponsible.

A petition against the broadcast of Tattoo School can be found at:

Interestingly, web TV – cheaper to produce and easier to distribute – is also turning its attention to tattooing. Two new programmes, the Vice Magazine sponsored 'Tattoo Age', a documentary series featuring portraits and tattoo artists and their art, and tattooer Marcus Kuhn’s tattoo travelogue The Gypsy Gentleman are now available online. Both of these fascinating projects are in their infancy, but hopefully, their focus on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’ will set new televisual standards and prove that tattoo ‘reality’ doesn’t have to
be dramatic. 

Regretfully, this month I cannot go without mentioning the tragically early death of Amy Winehouse.

A modern day Billie Holiday, as well known for her difficult personal life as her rich contralto voice, Amy was one of Britain’s best known tattooed women. Mainstream media commentators have assumed a correlation between Winehouse's bodily decorations and her self-destructive behaviour, but at this sad time, searching for negatives seems both overly simplistic and incredibly unkind. 

Perhaps those of us with a personal understanding of being tattooed, Amy's brothers and sisters of ink, can make different connections. We can trace the lines between Winehouse's inner self and her outward appearance and find the signs of the artist on her skin, as colourful, as unpredictable and as fleeting as a butterfly.

[Tattoos are] “A way of suffering for the things that mean a lot to you” 

Amy Winehouse


Text: Paula Hardy Kangelos