Tattoos have a long and complicated history.
In different periods and different regions of the world, tattoos have been used to identify and used to punish.
They have been used as medicine and as a rite of passage.
They have been used to tell stories and to set individuals apart from others in society.
What about today? It is estimated that 38% percent of the world’s population has at least one tattoo. That 38% of the people did not intend to use their tattoos to treat an illness. Since so many have tattoos, they are no longer associated with rebellion or subculture.
Why do people get tattoos today? I would argue that most people get tattoos because they view them as artistic expressions. Are artistic expressions the same as fine art?
Art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
“Human creative skill and imagination. . . “
As the tattooing industry has grown, tattoo artists have moved away from pre-designed illustrations. Now many high-end studios feature artists who spend hours designing custom-made pieces of art for their clients.
These custom-made designs are often imaginative, provocative, compelling, and emotionally-charged.
Many tattoo artists spend years developing their craft. An apprenticeship can last from one to three years in most cases, but it can take as long as five years in others.
Also, tattoo artists have to create their work on the most complicated and delicate surfaces imaginable.
Do tattoos take human creative skill? The answer to that is a resounding “yes.”
“ . . . producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
We have all seen tattoos that take our breaths away because they are so beautiful. We have also seen images inked on individuals that are incredibly raw and personal.
We have seen images depicting a person’s inner demons or struggles. We have witnessed tattoos depicting strength and survival. We have seen tattoos acting as reminders of what has been lost. We have seen tattoos displaying pride and triumph.
If tattoos meet the definition of art, then why aren’t more tattoo artist a part of the art world? Why do people not think of tattoos when hearing the word “art”?
It could be that tattoos haven’t been a part of the art world because art has been long associated with belonging to the wealthy and elite. In the past, art was always “owned” by individual collectors or by museums. Since the wealthy have been unable to collect tattoos, except on their own bodies, the art industry (and yes, it is an industry), has ignored the contribution of tattoo artists.
But the art world has evolved. Graffiti artists have received recognition and a following, even though their work cannot be collected or owned.
Banksy stirred up the art world with his powerful public images that can’t be owned. Banksy even took it one step farther by not receiving formal recognition for the work.
Since art doesn’t necessarily have to be owned, how do we come to terms with the fact that tattoos aren’t permanent? Does art need to be permanent to be considered art?
Graffiti artists’ works are not permanent. Also, performance artists now have a place in the art world, with many world-renowned art programs now recognizing non-traditional platforms and training students in this emerging genre.
Perhaps tattoo artists have struggled to break into the art world because the work they do can usually not be seen and understood in large groups.
There are exceptions. There are tattoo artists with millions of Instagram followers. There are traveling exhibitions featuring life-sized photographs of traditional Japanese tattoo art. There are tattoo artists who have achieved celebrity status and have long waiting lists.
Perhaps the problem with tattoos becoming an official member of the art community is that tattoos are too personal. If tattoos were just ink and skin, photographs would appear more in museums and exhibitions.
But tattoos are more than ink and skin. A good tattoo artist thinks about the placement of the tattoo and how the body’s movement will affect it. They will think about how the tattoo will change as the subject’s skin ages. Tattoos are best observed on a living, breathing person.
But as our industry evolves and technology changes, who knows how future generations will view us?
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