An Eye Is Upon You - 210: Style Counsel

Published: 02 April, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 210, April, 2012

“Fashion changes, only style remains the same.” - Coco Chanel.

What is style? Is it just a noun, a thing, easily identified and described? Or is it also a verb, an action, something that is done? What is stylish? Its etymology is the same, but is it different to style? After all, we can all identify a style, but is stylish altogether more esoteric?

Contemporary tattoo styles are increasingly varied. Improved technology, materials and application along with increasingly informed, talented and art-educated practitioners have facilitated almost continuous innovation. The breadth of our beloved skin art is more apparent now than at any other point in tattoo history.

This era of experimentation and invention is like a time-condensed echo of mainstream 20th century art history. Tattoos, like painting in the 1950s, have come to not just disregard the rule book, but even deny that the rule book ever existed at all. Modernist art is often misunderstood, and understandably so. Modern artists, writers and architects were connected only by philosophy; a belief that the traditions of the past were no longer relevant, a desire to reject the ideology of realism and instead, in the words of the modernist poet Ezra Pound, a compulsion to “make it new”.

Traditionally, tattoo art can be split into two distinct style categories, the figurative (the depiction of recognisable objects, animals and people, as seen in Japanese and Western traditional work), and the pattern (surface markings without obviously identifiable content, sometimes with culture specific spiritual symbolism, sometimes not), and to a certain extent this categorisation can still be made. However, these styles are no longer necessarily kept separate, and additionally, they have been divided and sub-divided into many meta categories.

The classification and labelling of these new or altered styles is not intrinsically necessary, but nonetheless, as with the Cubism or Abstract Expressionist movements of the past, definitions, or characterisations can be helpful, even if, as with most artistic or philosophical terms, no absolutes can be agreed.

We’ve invented terms to express the merging of traditional genres (such as Western tattoo emblems executed with the bold line and monochromatic palette of tribal-like designs, or old school tattoos with realistically shaded elements) and new descriptions for techniques and aesthetics once regarded as unsuitable for skin. We’ve welcomed the neo prefix to describe the altered directions that traditional Eastern and Western styles now travel, and we substitute blackwork for tribal to acknowledge that pattern and line are now embraced by those who have no tribe.

Our cultural language evolves with the art itself to ensure we can always identify tattoo styles and discuss them with others – but styles are something to be identified, so why is style itself, or more properly, stylishness, so difficult to define?

After all, many tattoo artists are working with images and techniques that can be assigned to each stylistic category, yet comparatively few are recalled and even less are celebrated. While some visibility can be attributed to clever marketing, it cannot be the whole story. Many exceptionally skilled tattooists prefer to concentrate on their work, rather than their public profile, yet we are all still aware of them and their art. Are these extraordinary practitioners those that exhibit not just a celebrated style, but those that possess style itself?

So what is style? What does it mean to be stylish? The dictionary describes style as: 1) A distinctive quality, form or type of something; 2) Fashionable elegance; 3) Beauty, grace or an ease of manner. In tattoo art all three definitions can be observed; and when all three are illustrated by a single artist, in a single artwork, we recognise the specialness.

An interesting definition of style is the idea that it is aesthetic integrity or an expression of our best authentic self. There is little point in becoming an expert in something that does not intrinsically interest nor excite you; although accomplishment can be achieved through labour, the achievement will always resonate as hollow, without feeling or belief. It will not touch or even convince others.

Perhaps we should substitute style for soul, and recognise that the artists who leave an impression are those who allow us to glimpse their souls, the essence of themselves. They are the ones who are keeping it real.


Text: Paula Hardy-Kangelos