Tattoos are no longer emblems of the underground. Days of picking out designs from shady, 3am tattoo parlour walls are being phased out by boutique services which require you to book an appointment with a specific artist. You’re encouraged to research this artist before you come and most websites feature profiles of their artists listing their influences, experience and favoured styles. The aim is to get to know the creative filter your idea will be channelled through so you have an inkling of what will come out.
Suddenly, those of us with no artistic skill or capacity can join in as co-creator and canvas. Access to the art world is thrown open to the masses, and since we’re engaged with the process from start to finish, we feel stronger ties of ownership to what we’ve helped create.
Many of these tattoo artists have professional ties to the ‘real’ art world. Dynamic Tattoo’s Trevor McStay
has had work appear in the National Gallery of Victoria (of all places), while professionals at Joy of Ink
have backgrounds diverse as graphic design, animation and fine art. There are conventions, magazines and festivals dedicated to celebrating the tattoo as an art form. And there are exhibitions like Ink Dots Black Spots
and Sea is for Change
which feature tattoo art in frames on a wall, just like any other gallery.
People are connecting with tattoos in new ways, too. Though it isn't anything new to have Marvin the Martian inked on your thigh, there's a more pronounced shift toward literary, pop-cultural and ‘geeky’ tattoos. The fact that people are getting memes permanently tagged on themselves shows we're engaging more strongly with imagery in the world around us. With this new creative leeway, we’re given new possibilities of ownership over popular icons, texts and symbols. People are literally, and figuratively, wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
Designing and creating a tattoo is definitely artistic practice: it relies on craftsmanship, skill and a solid knowledge of principles such as light, shade, tone, colour and how they all interact. Why then are tattoos considered so far removed from their oil-on-canvas cousins?
Tattoos exist in isolation. When we see tattoo art we aren’t treated to the cohesive, brilliant aura of a well thought-out exhibition space; we get no friendly pamphlet telling us a bit about the artists and what the work is supposed to mean. Instead, we have a single creation that is engineered to a brief.
While echoing styles of illustration art, the world of tattoo art has distinct parameters. A tattoo needs to be instantly spectacular enough to make you want to wear it on your skin, forever. Artists manipulate fundamental artistic elements such as line and shape for the pure sake of creating a visual experience. There’s an acute focus on interplay between form, and pure reliance on artists’ technical skill. Illustration here enjoys some leeway: it’s not made with a skin canvas in mind. Getting a tattoo means appropriating a work of art onto your body, and wearing it as a symbol of yourself for the remainder of your existence. With works of illustration, the stakes aren’t quite this high.
Tattoo art is distinct from other art forms. While it’s still considered a bit edgy, and perhaps doesn’t tickle our intellectual fancy in a strict sense, these preconceptions should not be worn as negatives. There’s value in categorization, and even more in variety: how else can we hope to build points of reference if we have no points of comparison?
We can appreciate tattooing as an art from without having, or necessarily wanting any ink injected into our skin. It’s a specific, self-contained and interactive form, and offers us unique ways to engage with and consider the process of creating art. The idea that images can be created just for the sake of aesthetic pleasure keeps us grounded, and affirms value of fundamental, technical skill in the ever expansive art world.
For more on tattoos, read Monica's review of Ink Dots Black Spots or check out Everguide’s gallery from Miss Ink 2012 at Cherry Bar.