Deputy Editor, Jennie Gillions takes her hat off to skilled tattoo artists, but wonders whether the contemporary art world takes the art of tattooing seriously enough.
Have you ever bought a piece of art you’re now embarrassed by? Maybe a print you can’t stand anymore because your tastes have changed, or a sculpture you only bought because it’s by someone famous? At least you can sell it, and recoup some, if not all of your losses. It might even have gone up in value depending on the artist.
Resale isn’t so easy if a piece of art is permanently on you. Try selling on a beautiful tattooed back piece and see how much trouble you get into. Getting tattooed is a financial and emotional commitment – unless you’re planning to become an alt model there is no investment value in being tattooed. On the contrary, people will travel hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles to get work done by sought-after tattoo artists, piling the costs of plane tickets and convention passes on top of the tattoo itself; unlike canvas and sculpture, tattoo art can’t be bought online.
You’d think this would mean people thought carefully about collecting body art, but the number of sites dedicated to terrible tattoos emphatically proves that a lot really don’t. That aside, even some pretty good tattoos can be sources of regret after a while; a writer not a million miles away from this keyboard got a lower back tattoo of two Egyptian-style cats about 9 years ago, which was fun and quirky for about a week and a half. Fortunately said cats have been covered up with a beautiful, much-loved interpretation of a Salvador Dali painting, but if they’d been bigger, or in colour, a cover-up would have been impossible and those cats would be an indelible reminder of a poorly spent £85.
I hope the woman with the Damien Hirst-designed tattoo on her vagina doesn’t regret her decision. This is the ultimate example of tattooing as a bad fashion choice, and, in my opinion, denigrates the art of tattooing. Top tattoo artists will happily admit that not everything they do is ‘art’ but the artists BC has spoken to never lose sight of the respect owed to their customers’ precious flesh.
Martin Crosthwaite, an award-winning tattoo artist at Flaming Gun in Colchester, sees himself as a commissioned artist, of the sort who’s been around for centuries (think painters whose salaries came from wealthy patrons, like Rembrandt or Michelangelo), but with far more moral responsibility to ensure clients leave happy. “Most of the time it’s the client that comes into the studio with the concept and vision… the thing that sets tattoos apart is that the story behind the creation of a piece will always be linked to the owner of the art.”
Martin, like most good tattoo artists, wants his clients to have a good experience and to take away a piece of art they never regret. Thomas Hooper, London-born but now working in New York, gave an interview to The Guardian in which he said: “The clients that get the best work are the ones that enjoy me and I enjoy them.” That’s an important consideration when buying tattoo art. If you have a bad experience it colours your memory of your tattoo. Lal Hardy, owner of New Wave in North London, has a perfect example of why seeking out even the most fashionable tattoo artists is not always the best idea: ”I knew a guy once who had a ¾ body suit – a beautiful body suit – done by a famous tattooist. The guy was gay, and for some reason this tattooist went off into a massive homophobic rant. The guy got his entire suit blacked in.”
Buying a contemporary canvas or sculpture doesn’t require a story, and and collectors don’t always care if the artist is a nice person or not. You like it or you don’t, and that’s fair enough. But if you were stuck with it for life (unless you went through a lot of pain and a lot of money to get rid of it) would you perhaps want something more personal?
One wonders how much contemporary artists who design/give tattoos as part of projects consider the effect their work might have on recipients. One suspects they don’t really consider it at all. All of the people involved in this particular project (Jeff Koons and Richard Prince were among the other artists who designed tattoos) chose to be tattooed, and they can at least be proud to have bypassed famous tattooist Mo Coppoletta’s extensive waiting list, but still… is it really appropriate to mix the notoriously fashion-conscious contemporary art world with the deeply personal experience of tattooing?
Yes, they can now proudly boast of having an original Hirst, or a Shrigley, which most of us can only dream of being able to afford, but what if these darlings of the art world should lose their desirability? Will those tattoos still seem like a great idea? If not, what do they do? Laser them off, cover them up or, as a last resort, try to gift them to the Tate in their wills.
Whether you’re a tattoo fanatic, or just simply a fan, check out Jennie’s blog, Ink Under Skin.
Image on homepage: artwork by Thomas Hooper. Image © Thomas Hooper.