By S.A. Hawkins
The relationship between the tattoo and fine art world has always been a tumultuous one. The art of tattooing is one surrounded in stigma, history, controversy and, more recently, big business.
In this day and age of professional artists making works in any context, out of non-traditional materials and by whatever means necessary, the tattoo world is still one that has been long shunned by the fine art world. Twenty-three percent of all Americans have a tattoo, according to a recent Pew Research poll—times are changing and so is the art world.
Any of us that were at the opening for MOCA’s “Art in the Streets” exhibition have seen the trend of what was once considered “outsider art” now falling directly under the “blue chip” designation. As with much of our fast-paced world, the art market is always looking for the new hot thing, and we all love a comeback. An underappreciated art form that has just been waiting in the wings, the fine art of tattooing has been developing its contemporary practice, biding time for the invitation to arrive in the mail.
As I was watching the new documentary film short titled Skin, it came to my attention that the invitation had most definitely arrived and the tattoo world gladly infiltrated the “blue chip” fine art world. Skin documents a fine art endeavor that involves several people getting an “original artwork” tattooed on their body, designed by artists such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Richard Prince. Interviews by representatives from Christie’s Auction House speak in the movie about the contemporary implications that arise from something like this tattoo project, i.e. ownership, value, archival nature, etc. With some big names backing the project, the art world has quickly begun to take notice.
For those of us who live both in the art world and also the tattoo world, this question is asked more times than I can remember . . . “Are tattoos art?” By definition alone, making stylized markings on one material—in this case the human body—using a secondary marking material, i.e. ink and tattoo gun is by definition art-making. But, a better question may be . . . Are tattoos accepted within the main stream canon of art?
For some time the fine art world has accepted the tattoo process in various forms, usually within participatory art or performance art. One notable example would be the provocative and interesting work of Wim Delvoye, a Belgian neo-conceptual artist known particularly for his shocking projects. For some time his practice has involved tattooing pigs and either stretching the skin on canvas post-humus or having the swine preserved through the taxidermy process and shown as sculptural works of art. Delvoye’s newer works are along a similar line to the tattoos featured in the Skin documentary, one of which resides on a human named Tim Steiner—in the form of a full back tattoo. This piece of art, unlike those shown in Skin, was for sale on the open market and purchased by a German collector for 150,000 Euros. As per the contract, Tim is required to exhibit himself three times a year, and upon his death, the tattooed back skin will be removed and handed over to the collector—yep!
While the art world is warming up to tattoo process being used within contemporary art, another trend is also on the rise. This is one of someone that works a day job as a famous tattooer, and moonlights as an up and coming art star. One prime example of this new trend is noted artist Shawn Barber. Barber is known for his portraits of tattooed humans and his world famous tattoos.
While some have found success as the pioneers of the tattoo/fine art crossover, this is simply the precursor . . . The dam has yet to burst.
So back to the initial question, “Are tattoos art?”
If you have ever taken an art history class, you will already know this answer—there is not one answer; it is subjective—a gray area. We as the viewers must look at each work with unbiased eyes, judging it to be fine art or amazingly skilled craft, based on its individual concept, content and context. You can see many different kinds of fine art in this weekend’s Ink-N-Iron Festival and the “Kulture Klash” group art exhibition in conjunction with Ink-N-Iron—and then perhaps you can decide for yourself.
“Kulture Klash” and Ink-N-Iron Festival at the Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Hwy., Long Beach, (877) 342-0738; ink-n-iron.com. June 7-9. Tickets $60-$450. All ages.