Tattoos: Alternative Expression with Traditional Roots
Tattoos– often a polarizing form of expression, with permanent ink as its medium and skin as its substrate, can be viewed as an act of defiance, a symbolic means of seriously considered self-expression, a living individual billboard, or increasingly an art form of admired acceptance. Once considered the domain of sea-faring sailors and fringe society, tattoos have in recent years gained mainstream following for men and women alike. An increase in art exhibitions that honor the tattoo art form, both old and new, point to an increased attitude of respect. Although this mainstreaming of human canvases continues to provide an ever-inclusive arena, the tattoo world still evokes an edgy and daring reputation. So it is interesting that within this envelope-pushing nocturnal world of tattoo parlors, that tattoos themselves, both in their subject matter and style, have largely favored a more traditional artistic bent.
Tattoos provide their wearers an avenue for personal expression and message, a way to leave a mark and take control over their bodies. This form of body art provides a living, breathing, walking method of communication. Can realism in the traditional sense be the most likely way to make a definitive visual statement, despite the alternative devotees? In a word, yes. Representational technique provides the clearest way to communicate a message, whether that message be counter-culture or status quo; lower, middle, or upper class. Realism in visual art, outside of the tattoo world, is often seen as the sphere of the boring and old-fashioned, whereas the avant-garde utilizes more unusual, conceptual, or abstract methods. This points to a fascinating oxymoron within the tattoo universe, one that in its mainstreaming oddly bucks protocol.
Tattoos, considered such a hip and contemporary form of self-expression today, have a long and storied past. Tattoos were found on a 5000 year-old frozen body, and 3000 year-old mummies. 1 Over 2000 years ago the men and women of Polynesia sported the tribal art as a rite of passage. The Samoan practice of applying of the tattoo, or tatau, was done by hand, by apprenticed artists also known as tufuga. In familial tradition, the artists used a tattooing comb made of sharp boar’s teeth, turtle shell, and wood to slowly tap their designs into their wearers using a mallet. 2 Death from infection was a reality. The permanent marks were indicators of rank, status, and courage. The process was arduous, excruciatingly painful, and long– sometimes lasting months, and healing could take as long as a year. (Skin Stories, 2) Typically inked at puberty, males displayed their designs from waist to ankle, the women on legs and hands. To refuse the mark of the tattoo comb was to be forever branded a coward; shame pointing to a failure to adhere to tribal ceremony, identity, and cultural tradition. Western Christian missionaries tried to halt the tattooing practice, labeling it barbaric, but the tradition prevailed. Designs swirled in non objective pattern, solid bands, and stylized nature motifs, often topped with a boat as a nod to ocean voyages. 3
By the 1700s sailors who travelled the Pacific Ocean on Captain Cook’s crew went under the tattooing comb to collect traditional mementos of Chinese, Japanese and Pacific Island culture. By World War II, the art form would get the attention of American servicemen near Pearl Harbor, partaking of the tattoo services of ambitious navy man Norman Collins, or Sailor Jerry. Changing the nature of tattoos, Sailor Jerry studied the techniques of tattoo masters from Japan, using bold, flat color and saucy imagery. Clearly outlined pin-up girls, ships, anchors, roses, hearts, daggers, were the order of the day. He also modernized tattoo machine use, making them safer, more sterile, and streamlined. 4 By the 1950’s and 60’s, American counterculture donned motifs that exemplified fringe society such as bikers and convicts. The late 1970’s brought punk stylizations with skulls and rock references. 5
Today, tattoo artists across the globe are hunched over their subjects making wide-ranging depictions that require traditional, formal facility and precision. Creating a believable three-dimensional image on mostly two-dimensional skin takes time-honored academic ability. This author was able to inspire an uninterested middle school art student into creative output through the cool factor of tattoo design. Elements of formalism– line, shape, value, shading, and more– held no interest for the student; representational imagery was too staid and lame in the form of sketching a face or vase. But under the guise of tattoo coolness, the traditional art lesson takes hold. Dusty lessons of yesteryear prove imperative for inked contemporary expression and identity, and form the foundation of the often rebellious impetus inherent in getting a tattoo.
And as tattoos have gained more mainstream acceptance, the inky art form has intriguingly moved into more alternative, abstracted expression. Tattoo artists such as Peter Aurisch of Germany, with his gestural, inventive flair (figure 2, peteraurisch.com), and Chaim Machlev, also of Germany, utilizes primarily black dots and lines in accordance with the curves of the body, (figure 3, dotstolines.com) exemplify a less realistic style. Illustrative outlining is rarer in many contemporary tattoos, although Oregon artist Alice Carrier utilizes line in vintage exactitude with her beautifully rendered herbal botanical creations. (figure 1, alicecarrier.com)
Watercolor, stippling, and pixel techniques, along with vibrant color emphasize newer, more evolved methods of artistic tattoo endeavor. (Buzzfeed)
Are these artful expressions able to communicate the wearer’s statement with clarity? The answer is a qualified yes, although the mind and hand print of the artist is perhaps clearer than the message of the human substrate. These contemporary works are beautiful, compelling designs that showcase the virtuosity of the artist to be sure. Every passing year brings more sophisticated, inventive techniques to a time-honored art form that is enjoying an increasingly robust following. With these more modern and abstracted depictions comes a more ambiguous expression. One that can elevate tattoos to a higher art form within mainstream acceptance…and be cause for edgy conversation.
- Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo, History of Tattoo, accessed 11/30/16, http://www.pbs.org/skinstories/history/index.html ↩
- Squires, John. Tribal Tattoos History and Meaning, September 8, 2013, http://richmondtattooshops.com/tribal-tattoos-history-meaning/ ↩
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