Episode #14 on tattooroadtrip.com.
What on earth happened to the power of tattoos? I was in the supermarket the other day and some four-year-old kid being pushed around by her mom in a grocery cart blurts out for all to hear, “Hey, mister. Cool tattoos!”
I guess it’s a sign of progress when a tattooed person walking down the main drag in a tank top in Portland, Oregon doesn’t frighten the civilians. Actually, it’s rather disturbing is what it is.
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GOOD ART OR BAD ART?
Is tattooing immune from criticism? On the one hand, it wants to be called “fine art,” as Don Ed Hardy has so aggressively suggested, and, on the other, it prefers privacy. No talk of money. No exposing mediocrity. In the art world, the one inhabited by painters, sculptors, potters, weavers and architects, artists and their various creations have been held up to the light and critiqued by historians, academics and the general public for centuries. Not everyone appreciated Van Gogh, when he was around. Not everyone, today, likes the tattoos by Noon or the architectural renderings of Eric Owen Moss (the Hayden Tract in Culver City, California) or, back to tattooing, the three-dimensional swirls and whirls of Guy Aitchison, for example. Differing opinions, that’s what makes the world go ’round. That’s the fun of it. That’s the game.
Some of Picasso’s groundbreaking efforts look like bad art, if you don’t understand his vision. He was doing something new and innovative, creating a whole new set of artistic standards. Or how about the 1912 painting by Marcel Duchamp, “Nude Descending a Staircase”? The art world just about turned upside down, when that mind-bending painting was exhibited. Duchamp first submitted the work to appear in a Cubist show at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris, but jurist Albert Gleizes asked Duchamp’s brothers to have him voluntarily withdraw the painting, or paint over the title that he had painted on the work and rename it something else. The hanging committee objected to the work on the grounds that it had “too much of a literary title.” Regarding the incident, Duchamp recalled, “I said nothing to my brothers. But I went immediately to the show and took my painting home in a taxi. It was really a turning point in my life, I can assure you. I saw that I would not be very much interested in groups after that.” He then submitted the painting to the 1913 Armory Show, in New York City, located where Americans, accustomed to naturalistic art, were scandalized. Julian Street, an art critic for the New York Times wrote that the work resembled “an explosion in a shingle factory.”
Conversely, if you suggest that a particular tattoo artist’s work is anything other than “perfect” or “awesome,” outrage is par for the course. Especially from the people who have unknowingly paid good money for the “privilege” of getting a (what they found out later to be) bad tattoo. These folks will defend to the death the fact that “this scar tissue is part of the design” and “so what if the circle in the design isn’t round?” Hey, what does it take for some people to enter the inner sanctum of tattooing, anyway? Is there a four-year curriculum and a written test? Is there an officially-mandated jury that decides whether you have talent or not? No. All you need is a credit card and enough people to donate their skin… and you’re in business.
There’s already a Bob Roberts, Yoshihito Nakano, Filip Leu and Stephane Chaudesaigues.” But this hasn’t stopped hordes of other “artists” from buying a of couple of machines, tubes and some pre-mixed bottles of ink and setting up shop. And once they do, many of them immediately consider themselves on a par with Roberts, Leu and the rest, even though they can’t make their own needles, haven’t a clue how to mix their own colors and don’t know a triceps from a biceps from a deltoid. They are “faking it.” They are essentially buying a beret and calling themselves “French.” But never mind that they haven’t sufficient knowledge or talent. What they are good at is finding enough followers, others who also don’t know good tattoo art if they fell over it, and, voila!, instant customers. If you’ve ever talked to these acolytes, especially one who just got a tattoo of their mother that ended up looking like a cauliflower with eyes, they will passionately claim that “this is the best tattoo in the whole world.” You know what I mean.
Sure, there are many brilliant new artists. Some ground it out in lengthy apprenticeships, others graduated from art schools. Many studied anatomy, color, design, placement and, most importantly, the sterile chain of events. Some are naturals. But, in many cases, there are self-proclaimed “artists” out there who simply can’t draw. Talk about “riding on the coattails of the industry.” If anyone has been “riding on the coattails” it’s the wanna-bes who are riding on the coattails of people like Sailor Jerry Collins, Paul Booth, the Maoris and Jack Rudy, copying their designs, and not even saying “thank-you.”
Many of us don’t want to see the art of tattoo overrun with posers and hacks. That is why some of us attempt to educate the public, expose mediocrity and raise the standards of the industry. Why is there such an enormous business in cover-ups of badly done tattoo art? Because the public has become more educated, that’s why. And the more they learn to distinguish good from bad, the more they will seek out the established, talented artists who have kept the art form flourishing as it has for the last 5,000 years. Just because Dr. Lars Krutak or Mike McCabe or Bernard Clark or Bill DeMichele or Vince Hemingson or Travelin’ Mick don’t sit in a tattoo shop all day and draw designs on customers’ skin, does not invalidate what they do. They have contributed mightily to the art of tattoo through their writings and images and research. But unless people like these provide some articulate commentary on what people are trying to sell us, we’re going to be overrun by the tattoo equivalent of cheese-and-bacon sandwiches made with two pieces of fried chicken instead of bread, Justin Bieber at the top of the music charts, ladies who can’t spell “repudiate” running for President and, lest we forget, tattoos that make your mother look like a cauliflower.
There is quite a discussion going in this blog’s Comments section of the December 27th post entitled BAD TATTOOS (scroll down). It seems that certain readers woke up on their wrong side of their sense of humor this morning and disapprove of my dubbing certain tattoos “lousy” or stating, “what could be more fun than putting down other people’s lousy ink?” I think that these people (a couple signed their name “Anonymous”) sound like they haven’t been around the business very long if they think tattooists don’t out other people’s work with a vengeance. With competition being what it is, each shop is scraping by to stay alive. Not all, mind you, but some. And when you consider the comment, “The only people rock stars look up to is tattooists,” it certainly suggests that tattoo artists are not all lacking in the inflated ego department. So, what if I hadn’t described those tattoos as “lousy?” Then how much credence would you give, if I said that a totally other group of tattoos was “fantastic?” I’ve always called ’em like I see ’em, which is why so many readers trusted our opinions, back when I ran a print magazine. If somebody tattooed great dragons, I described it that way. If somebody tattooed “lousy” dragons, I described it that way. I’ve received letters from readers like this for nearly fifteen years, and it’s always the same: most of the complainers sign their emails “Anonymous,” and when I suggest they are all twisted about my calling certain tattoos bad because they’re probably turning out equally crappy tattoos themselves, and when I ask them to establish their credibility by sending in samples of their work, to show us all how talented they think they are, they never write back. By the way, the 18 tattoos I provided are all bad, but for different reasons. One has a misspelling, several are terribly drawn, a few have odd subject matter and more than one is simply terrifyingly bad. A couple, in fact, are so terrifyingly bad that they’re almost good.