A woman with a tattoo inspired by Salvador Dali
A woman with a tattoo inspired by Salvador Dali

In 2009 I was sitting in the foyer of Melbourne’s Chapel Tattoo. Waiting to purposefully cleave open your flesh and fill the wound with ink is always an interesting experience. The drone of pulsating needles is often interrupted by the trill of the phone, answered by some heavily tattooed person, politely informing whomever that appointments aren’t accepted over the phone. Those already aware of this common practice stream through the door, shuffling or striding to the desk with their design balled between sweaty palms. There are doe-eyed lovers reassuring each other, nervous kids bouncing their knees, locking deep breathes in their chests and bogans outlining their vision to get a Southern Cross framed by ‘Aussie Pride’ in Old English.

As if this isn’t fascinating enough to watch, that day in 2009 the foyer was buzzing louder than the swarm of tattoo guns hidden down the hall. There was an ABC TV crew there, and Fenella Kernebone was rehearsing her introduction to a segment for Art Nation on the very thing I’m now considering – are tattoos art?

You don’t need to look far these days to see someone carved with colourful carp or inspirational inscriptions. Once the realm of sailors and criminals, tattoos are now firmly chiselled into public consciousness. But are all the hipsters sporting Mexican death skulls really a canvas or are they just like, totes fashionable?

The obvious answer to this question is yes – tattoos are undeniably art. Just consider the surface of the notion. Those that do them are called artists, the parlours are referred to as studios, they sell framed prints of past works and there are artist folios always lying around.

Seems pretty straightforward. That old bastion of reference, the Oxford English Dictionary defines art as:

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.

This definition unquestioningly applies to tattooing and the art world is keenly aware of it. In 2009 Krisal gallery in Geneva hosted an exhibition devoted to photographs of Etienne Dumont, an art and culture critic who is tattooed from head to toe. According to an article published in the Guardian last year, 2010 saw major exhibitions of tattoo artists and their works at the Noyes Museum of Art in New Jersey, the Arts Center@319 in Virginia and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Last year we spoke to Tim Steiner, most commonly known as Tattoo Tim, who sports a piece by Belgian enfant-terrible Wim Delvoye on his back. From December last year until the end of January, Tattoo Tim was exhibited in Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), which involved him sitting with his back on display. Just last month Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building hosted the Rites of Passage Tattoo Convention and Arts Festival.

In the lead up to a 1982 Tattoo Convention in California, the Governor’s Office issued an official state proclamation declaring:

The tattoo is the primal parent of the visual arts… It has re-emerged as a fine art attracting highly trained and skilled practitioners. Current creative approaches are infusing this traditional discipline with new vigor [sic] and meaning. At a time when these artists from around the world meet in California to share, teach and celebrate their skills, it seem appropriate to remind Californians that the tattoo is indeed one of the most ancient of arts. [1]

This proclamation raises a number of interesting points, the first being how tattooing is not only an art, but also one of the most ancient. While the word is derived from the word ‘tatau’, which was commonly used among the cultures of the Pacific Islands, the Macmillan Dictionary of Art points out, “The art is attested in almost every culture worldwide… the earliest surviving examples of tattooed human skin come from 12th-Dynasty Egypt (1938 BC) but representational evidence suggests that tattooing was practiced in Pre-dynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt (4,500BC).” [2]

The next salient point touched upon by that 1982 proclamation is the “re-emerged… fine art [is] attracting highly trained and skilled practitioners”, indeed, just like in demand artists, tattoo artists are individually sought out for their unique creations. The above mentioned article in the Guardian demonstrates this. Journalist Paul Harris signifies tattooist Thomas Hooper, who he points out “has a waiting list of six months” with many clients offering “him their skin as a blank canvas”, a process akin to commissioning work from an artist. Having worked on celebrities such as Lenny Kravitz and Samantha Ronson, Harris suggests people want a “Hooper” in the same way an art collector might desire “a David Hockney painting”. According to Hooper himself, his “goal as an artist” is that when someone sees a tattoo, if he’s done it, he wants them “to know that it is mine”.

One tattooist recently in Melbourne for The Rites of Passage Tattoo Convention & Arts Festival takes this cult of personality to an extreme. Speaking to InPress Magazine’s Samson McDougall, festival organiser Claire Reid said, “We’ve got this really great Japanese artist called Shige who’s one of the best in the world – he’s got a three year waiting list.”

While one can expect to pay huge amounts for work done by a tattoo artist, much like a visual artist or sculptor (Harris mentions Mario Barth who charged $150,000 for five hours working on rocker Tommy Lee), there’s one very important thing that separates tattoos and art. While you could pay $150,000 to get tattooed by an acclaimed artist, you cannot then go and sell that person to a collector. Alex Binnie, a tattooist featured in Harris’ article identifies this, “To a degree, the fine art world has jumped on it. But a tattoo has no resale value. That is crucial.”

This is a point we considered when Tattoo Tim, a human piece of artwork, was being exhibited recently at MONA. What makes the tattoo on Steiner’s back a piece of art is that it has been sold to German collector Rik Reinking for $205,000. After years of difficult contractual negotiations with lawyers, it was agreed that when Tim dies, his back would be skinned and the tat framed. Steiner told us that in Delvoye’s eyes, “this [tattoo] is art because it got sold.”

He explained further how the Belgian artist desired the tattoo to be treated like any other work of art. “That means to do the primary sale first, which we have achieved by selling to Rik,” he said, “but [Delvoye’s] big vision is that we make a secondary sale at an auction.” According to Steiner, Delvoye dreams of an auction at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, where Steiner is given a lot number and paraded before collectors who make bids on his flesh.

So, does that mean that my tattoos aren’t art because some German guy isn’t interested in owning my corroded flesh? Do all the intricate, beautiful designs adorning people all over the world hold less value because they’re unable to be sold? In a way they’ve already been sold to the person who wears them. An artist that has developed a reputation people will pay Rothko-sized remuneration for demonstrates that their skills have been commoditised; their art has a very real monetary value. A lot of artists don’t get such satisfaction in their lifetime. Think of Van Gogh, who only sold two paintings while he took breath. My tattooist might indeed be the next insane Dutchman, I might be walking around with a few Portrait of Dr.Gachet’s on my body.

I seriously doubt it.

But I don’t doubt the artistry of those that I’ve allowed and paid to permanently scar me. It was a conspiracy between two people, my ideas realised through the talent of another, someone who had practiced their craft with the same dedication as a painter or dancer.
So while the body parts of all the tattooed people in the world may not be exhibited after their death, what’s on them is undeniably “the expression of human creative skill and imagination”. Just because millions of unimaginative people have tattoos, doesn’t mean tattoos can’t be art and it doesn’t mean the artists should be blamed for all the dolphins, butterflies and Southern Crosses. There are innumerable instances of awful art out there as well, just untalented artists haven’t figured out a way to dupe people into paying for it just yet.

Well, except Damien Hirst.

[1]”A Proclamation,” Executive Department, State of California, The Queen Mary, Long Beach, Calif., Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Nov. 12, 1982.
[2] “Tattoo,” The Dictionary of Art (34 volumes), Macmillan Publishers Ltd., New York, 1996, vol. 30, page 366.