An Eye Is Upon You - 214: The Big Society

Published: 23 July, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 214, July, 2012

When I was little, I lived in a little house, in a little village, a few hundred yards from my Grandma’s (also little) house. My whole world was small…

I attended a local school with less than a hundred other children and my mum was one of the dinner ladies. My aunts, uncles and cousins all lived nearby and everyone in the village not only knew each other, they also appeared to like one another as well. In the church, pub and tiny shop, greetings were exchanged and good feelings were made in the same the way bees make honey. Bound together with geographical proximity and collective good will, we were a community.

I’m not sure that communities like this still exist, perhaps now the ‘bees’ exit the hive in search of pollen, but are afraid to share it upon return. Instead, we sit in our overpriced, box-like homes and worry about the volume, texture, and taste of our metaphorical nectar; we compare ourselves to others and imagine that we fall short. It’s not our fault of course; relentless advertising reminds us of our worthlessness and convinces us to exchange our honey for their new wondrous product so that we may once again be happy. The way we were before we left our villages and their traditional commonality behind.
Fortunately, humans have found a new way to fulfill their needs for connection and reciprocity. Rather than forming polite fraternities of chance with our neighbours, we’ve devised methodologies for finding those we suspect we will be comfortable beside – religion, sports, hobbies. Britain is no longer inhabited by Northerners and Southerners, the Welsh and the Scottish; instead we are Trekkies, football supporters, knitters, and vegans. We’ve become passionate about our passions and have formed new communities around them in order to replace what we’ve lost, a sense of belonging and solidarity.

Tattoo enthusiasts are no different to any other devoted niche group – friendships, careers, finances and travel plans are all viewed through tattoo-tinted spectacles. Our love of ink seems to mean so much more to us than a mere hobby – like a ripple in the water, a seemingly simple aesthetic preference sets off a reaction that becomes ever larger. It’s not just a lifestyle for many of us, it’s a whole life, a life we are incredibly happy to share with like-minded others.

Of course, not everyone thinks of tattooland as a community. These days you’re just as likely to hear it referred to as an industry, an apparently offensive concept to some – but are these differing descriptions completely incompatible? Is industry a dirty word or can the commercialism of tattoos be seen as a positive thing?

Like it or not, tattooing, like other arts, is a business. Yes, many artists would continue to sculpt, paint or tattoo without the possibility of financial reward, but patronage undoubtably plays a part in both the conception and execution of many artworks. Artistic endeavour, great skill and talent are rightly valued, and although it may be crass, value in western society is most often defined in monetary terms.

This exchange of monies for services (tattooing) or items (tattoos) is industry at its most simple, but it needn’t be an affront – industry obliges professionalism – enterprise, diligence, industriousness, just as surely as it obliges restitution, and how can professionalism ever be negative? Is the community/industry divide purely arbitrary anyway? Devotion and diligence are not far apart and neither are engagement and enterprise. My little village was always at its best when there was something to gain, be that a prize for the best-kept hanging baskets, the pride associated with domino domination, or simply talc from the fête tombola. A sense of competition promotes cohesion through camaraderie and common aim, much like a miniature Olympic games, only with a lot more homemade jam. And the tattoo industry also benefits from competition, the more artists, shops, magazine titles and shows there are, the better each one has to be.

The tattoo world, either by luck or careful design, is blessed with a space for its own giant vegetable competitions – a place where community and industry are joined in perfect marriage, the tattoo convention. Equal parts trade show and social gathering, conventions combine business and brotherhood seamlessly, largely due to the genuine friendship that exists between artists, organisers, customers and enthusiasts, but also due to competitive spirit and common aim of improving both the art form and its related associated industry.

Great art, a devoted community, a responsible industry, and a profit? Yes, we can have it all, whatever you’d like to call it.


Text: Paula Hardy-Kangelos