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This story by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on August 19, 1998. All rights reserved.
When the Body is the Mural: Tattoos
Yes, it gets under your skin. Yes, it's a matter of taste. And no, it's not necessarily linked to body piercing, bikers, or even drunken sailors. It's tattooing, and it's in. Deal with it.
There can be no doubt that this old subject is being viewed in a new light today. When models and superstar athletes are just the most visible people flaunting tattoos, and when the ranks of people with tattoos include nannies and preppies, cops and executives, it's time to talk the tattoo talk. And it's time to look at the tattoo as the art form some consider it to be, and at tattooists as bona fide "tattoo artists."
Maybe the most compelling reason to raise the tattooing subject: summer, prime time for tattoos -- both seeing and getting them. Freed from winter's gray grasp, we all go a little crazy once it's warm. We're outside more, and we look for inside outlets too. It's a time for new ideas, styles, pastimes, tattoos. Tattoos? Say, what?
But there they are, in K & B Tattooing, Hightstown: an all-American teenage couple, dressed in shorts, tees, and sneakers, and studying the wall flash, tattoo-talk for the store samples, a mounted display of ready-made tattoo designs that customers choose from. But flash is just one of the options. More and more tattooists prefer doing custom "tats": they work with the client to produce a unique design, which, once okayed at the sketch level, is ready to be tattooed.
The young woman at K & B already has tattoos, one on her pelvis, one near her shoulder blade. She shows them off while her friend searches for a design that seems right for his first tattoo. These kids are part of a growing crowd of formerly "plain-skinned people," as those without tattoos are sometimes called. And they don't suffer from hepatitis or other diseases; they don't wear black leather clothes or have Harleys parked outside. They stand up straight and speak nicely.
Tattooing is just another age-old form of body alteration, albeit a permanent one. Distinct from temporary body changes like clothes, body (including face and nail) painting, and hair styling, tattooing is one of four major forms of permanent "body art": body sculpture, such as foot-binding and plastic surgery; infibulation, or piercing; and cicatrization, or scarification.
It may go as far back in history as humans do -- reportedly, the Bronze Age "Iceman," disinterred from an Alpine glacier, was tattooed, as were ancient Egyptians and, on this continent, the Maya. Not until 1769, when Captain James Cook noted the practice of "ta-tu" in Polynesia, was that term adapted to "tattoo" in Western cultures, replacing earlier names for a longtime activity. In New Zealand today, Maori people are reviving their ancient custom of wearing a moko, a detailed tattoo on the chin and lips that details the family genealogy, a practice many encountered for the first time courtesy of Harvey Keitel in the movie, "The Piano."
The how-to of tattooing is another, related story. So are the preventive hygienic measures involved with tattoo application and maintenance.
For much of the century in this country, tattooing producers and consumers were regarded as marginal people -- psychological or social deviants of one kind or another. Tattoos have been used as rites of passage, group identification, and bonding devices; they have often been "read" as anti-establishment symbols, and they have sometimes served to display patriotic and/or traditionally affectionate feelings. Think, for instance, of the veterans you know who sport anchors or eagles, hearts or roses, often in combination with names of loved ones.
And bikers. They're another story, with still other images, on the dark side.
But not every young sailor went along with the gang and got tattooed. Joe Rose, manager of Lion's Den II in New Hope, recently tattooed a retired sailor who's now in his early 80s. Rose's client simply didn't want a tattoo years ago. Now, his right forearm shows a classic black and white illustration from Melville's "Moby Dick": a whale's tail rising above the waves. The man's enthusiastic family kept him company during the process, Rose says.
Tattooing has become the raison d'etre for specialty magazines (often shelved with fine-art "zines"), and the subject of books, scholarly articles, and videos. There are associations of tattooists, or "tattoo artists." And, proof positive of growing legitimacy -- or simply marketing prowess -- tattoo conventions are a regular thing around the world, including the big "Forged in Ink" meeting, earlier this year, in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
In May, the New York Times reported on a tattoo convention in Manhattan, where anti-tattoo legislation was only recently relaxed, allowing former undercover "parlors" or "studios," to go public. Artists from all over the world drew throngs of tattoo fanciers, and wearers. The Times coverage alluded to tattoos on the ankles and arms of today's Madison Avenue executives.
We'll know tattooing has really arrived when a query phone call to New Hope's Information Center (215-862-5030) yields specifics on the location of tattoo establishments in town. This writer called a number of times, speaking fruitlessly with different representatives before one of them asked, "Can't you tell that we don't approve of this?"
Even the Chamber of Commerce publication about area offerings gives no hint of the town's two tattoo businesses. (In a recent report on New Hope's plan to maintain its historic destination market niche, one planner warned: "If you're not too careful, you're going to have nail shops, T-shirt shops, tattoo parlors, gun shops, and pornography." ("That's capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool.")
Traditionally, the merit of a tattoo has been judged by the apparent technical skill with which it was applied, rather than by its design, style, or placement. That's all changing. Increasingly, tattooists have studied art, worked at some form or another of commercial art, and consider themselves artists. Many view the larger art world as their primary reference group, accepting wall flash as a necessity, but preferring to do custom designs or at least to customize the flash. Such innovation and stylistic diversity burnishes artists' reputations and promotes repeat customers.
One reference on tattooing distinguishes between two major approaches: the more classic Japanese style, a sort of body mural, with stylized background elements tying the foreground images together. Those with most of their arms or backs or chests covered with continuous, connected tattoos exemplify the mural approach, in which the elements are related in subject and color, and take the wearer's body contours into consideration.
As for the background on tattoos in Japan, there's "The Tattoo Murder Case," a mystery novel first published in Japan in 1948 and, recently translated, published here this year. It deals with full-body tattoos, museum and private collections of same, and tattooing in post-war Japan -- all still another story.
On the other hand (or thigh or shoulder), the usual Western approach is badge-like, with images here and there on the skin, not necessarily related in design or style, and often not even physically touching. This is the more likely style to prompt second thoughts or cover-up tattoos. (At last report, however, former Secretary of State George Shulz still sits on his tiger tattoo, a proud alum's pledge of allegiance to Princeton University.)
Typically, school athletes, gang members, or fraternity and sorority members -- as well as the young woman mentioned earlier -- have badge-style tattoos. In each such case, the wearer has chosen a studio and a tattoo concept, or worked with the tattooist to design one, and the work is done. This may be the client's only tattoo, or it could be the start of something big.
Women and men differ in their choices of tattoo design and where it should be placed. Denise Glover, a tattoo artist at Living Arts Tattoo Studio in New Hope, says many of her women clients, often middle-class and middle-aged, pick small, delicate designs, such as butterflies or flowers. Glover's personal tattoo choices are beautifully atypical: much of her upper body is decorated with mural-like designs incorporating fish and flowers, and featuring muted shades of purple and green. Joe Rose, of Lion's Den II, says 70 percent of his customers are women, and they usually prefer semi-private locations -- pelvis, ankle, shoulder, back, breast -- so they can display the tattoo or not, as they wish.
Men are known to use tattoos as symbols of identity and masculinity. Although corporate types and those in generally conservative professions might ensure their tattoos are not visible when they're suited up, their "tats" are bigger and bolder than women's. Blazing baseballs, bold Celtic motifs, and the au courant designs of the day -- from Tasmanian devils to photo-realistic portraits -- get the most play.
Yes, a tattoo that becomes unsatisfactory or inappropriate can be disguised by being "covered" with a more comprehensive design. Laser removal is possible, although it's reportedly pricey and far from absolute. The wisest course is to be sure a tattoo is desirable before it's done. The good news is that most tattooists I spoke with refuse to work on would-be customers who are under the influence and/or under 18.
Yet, given that tattooing occurs within an ever-widening circle of consumers, back to the initial question: Is it art?
Is art in the eye (or on the arm) of the beholder? Is my art your graffiti? Which leads in turn to other questions: Does calling it art make it art? What is fine art? What makes a fine artist? Did art connoisseur Bernard Berenson have it right when he uttered the truism: "The ultimate justification of the work of art is to help the spectator to become a work of art himself (sic)"? And was he thinking of tattooed people?
By what alchemy have tattoos turned from figurative spinach (as in "I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it") into art? Have the many parallels between tattooing and traditional visual art forms helped convert the former into the latter?
Art preparation is one common element in both fields. As many professional artists claim both education and experience in their chosen areas, so do more and more tattooists. Drawing skill and art school are often cited as qualifiers for tattooing. So is serving an apprenticeship. Historically an area where newcomers could learn only from established operators, tattooing still involves apprenticing. For instance, Tony Corso, at Lion's Den I, in Trenton, does "grunt work" for the shop manager, whose "nom de needle" is "Critter." The fact that Corso has been tattooing for a couple years is just the beginning, he says; also required are a knowledge of anatomy, the ability to read customers, order equipment and supplies, as well as patience and sales skills.
And there's continuing education too. As traditional artists have workshops, professional organizations, and publications, so, too, do tattoo operators. And they may also do research for some drawings -- for instance, for tattoos showing native Americans, "Thomi Hawk" (another nom de needle), owner of K & B in Hightstown, has researched such tribal details as hairstyles, to assure an accurate finished image. He estimates that about 75 percent of the work done in his shop is custom, or freehand.
Further similarities between the two fields include preparation of the "canvas," the customer's skin area, for tattooing. Age, general health, color, and condition of the skin are a few of the factors to be considered; even sobriety enters in. Artistic tools -- in tattooing, this would mean needles, stencils, colors -- must be readied.
Then comes the picture itself, the image. Today, the possibilities are just about limitless. Within what some view as three basic approaches -- flat, with solid blocks of color and no shading or detailing; traditional and neotraditional, with thick black outlines and solid color blocks; and fine line, with great detail, shading and texturing possible -- there are innumerable styles -- photo-realistic portraits; reproductions of paintings and hieroglyphics; science fiction and fantasy; tribal designs; cartoons; abstract shapes and patterns. Adding to the challenge, all these can be mixed and matched.
A recent tattoo picture book shows a woman's back half covered with abstract shapes that Miro or Picasso would probably recognize, for an overall mural effect. Is there much difference between that iteration and the carpets that replicate modern artworks? Do you prefer your Klee imagery underfoot or on your back?
Artists working on commissions aim to please their patrons and themselves. "It's very demanding to put a complete piece of art on a person," Joe Rose says. "Both sides (artist and client) want it to be 100 percent perfect." Artists have juried shows, prizes, and resumes, exhibit listings, and portfolios of their work; tattoo operators have competitions, prizes, photos, and albums of their work. As some artists may publish articles on their techniques, tattooists may write for tattoo zines and newsletters. And if they're commercial at all, both groups encourage happy customers' word-of-mouth publicity; this builds a clientele.
A tattoo artist's following depends in part on the studio location, reputation, and in-person aura. The key variable is the tattooist: what kind of person, how dressed, what specialties. Visiting tattoo shops in the area, the tattooists I met were all remarkably articulate, while also differing vastly in appearance and dress. The gamut ran from tall, slim Denise Glover, with short red hair, amazing blue eyes, and deep dimples, whose pale, "plain" skin down to her shoulders contrasts dramatically with the tattooed skin under a flowery dress below, to the more stereotypical male tattooists I met, dressed in styles ranging from dark sports clothes to all-black with leather bracelets and various piercings.
Like most artists, each has a specialty. One may excel at "wash work," or monochromatic black with shades of gray; another may be known for the vivid colors and funky look of neotraditional tattoos.
Pricing is inconsistent in both worlds. Tattoo artists price their work in a variety of ways -- by the hour, by the piece (how difficult, how many colors, and so on), by the square inch. Everyone seems to do it differently, though one tattooist says all told, the typical tattoo costs from $50 to $100. Thomi Hawk sums it up with the observation, "I've seen starving artists, but not starving tattoo artists."
Finally -- dare we say it? -- both traditional and tattoo art can inspire pure gobbledygook commentary: "It's like a late Beethoven string quartet -- dazzlingly complicated and perfectly simple, which in my opinion happens at the highest level of art, whatever the medium." So spoke a contented tattooed man in a New Yorker piece more than 10 years ago, referring to the work of Zee, a Connecticut tattoo artist he had selected to decorate his whole body. "You could buy a painting and just hang it on the wall, but a tattoo becomes part of your being and your consciousness . . . For me, it's just an incredible honor to be able to live with it and wear it. I feel like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel."
And like some more traditional art, tattoo art appreciates: "Zee's pieces are going to go up in price. He's world class. So you should get him while he's cheap," said the tattooed man.
As various fine art terms are hard to spell -- take "gouache," or "chiaroscurist" -- so, for many of us, is "tattoo" itself. You'd be surprised at how many people spell it "tatoo" (is this a subconscious relation to "taboo"?). Surely definitive proof of a connection between the two worlds.
Or are they in fact two worlds? In an age when traveling cross-country and sending postcards and messages is considered an art form by one area museum, and another museum presents an art installation comprised of a couple lying naked on a large platform festooned with hand-dyed silk leaves for hours at a time, who are we to look at tattoos askance?
Please pass the spinach.
-- Pat Summers
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com -- the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.