Exhibition Review—Time:Tattoo Art Today
The theme of time and all it infers(such as life and death)is a classic,common motif in tattoo art,expressed through a vast variety of iconographic combinations.The popular inkings of butterflies,blossoms and the handled cross signify life,while memento mori such as skulls or the Hindu goddess Kali denote death.The age-old art of tattooing has reached beyond simple stencils hung on the walls of traditional tattoo shops;many tattoo artists today come from backgrounds in fine and graphic art and have creative control over the pieces they produce,with clients searching for artists rather than objects to ink on their bodies.
Tattooing is now practiced globally at an historically unprecedented level and the most iconic and influential practitioners in the world have been selected for Time:Tattoo Art Today.Each has been commissioned to create a completely new work on the theme of time,using any medium and upon any surface—apart from skin.
Once tattoos were considered to be the mark of riff raff, lowlifes and gangsters, but since the 1980's tattoos have become socially acceptable in the West. They were all the rage in the nineties and today are common fashion accessories. Tattoo artists have moved uptown from the sleazier quarters and earned an unprecedented level of respect, with some of the more talented ones exhibiting their designs in mainstream art galleries. How did it all start?
The earliest record of tattooing comes from Egypt. From the land of the pharaohs it spread to Europe and the Far East. In Ancient Greece, tattoos were used to identify fellow members of secret societies and the Romans used tattoos to mark criminals. In Ancient Japan they signified social status and in New Zealand the Maori people differentiated members of different tribes by their tattoos. In Europe, tattooing was popular up until the 12th century. The people of northern Europe would often tattoo their family crest on their arms (a practice which still exists today). For some reason tattooing vanished from Europe for several centuries after the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066. Apparently, the Normans were not keen on tattoos!
The reintroduction of tattooing to the West occurred in the 17th century when, in 1691, an explorer by the name of William Dampier returned from an expedition to the South Seas with a heavily tattooed Polynesian prince. It had been 600 years since tattoos had been seen in Europe and the 'Painted Prince' was a big hit with Londoners. However, tattoos would not make a real mark in the West for another hundred years.
The word 'tattoo' was introduced to the English language from a Polynesian word by Captain James Cook in the late 18th century (He also introduced the word 'taboo').His voyages to the South Pacific brought him into contact with tattooed tribes and his own crew had tattoos done themselves. Captain Cook was a sensation in England and a tattoo trend started among the upper class of London. As tattoos became more widespread, and associated with sailors, they lost favour with the upper echelons of society.
Early tattoos were made by a slow and very painful process. Each puncture of the skin was done by hand as the ink was applied. In 1891, the first electric tattoo machine was patented by Samuel O'Reilly. The design was based on Edison's electric pen. The basic design had moving coils, a tube and a needle bar, which are the components of today's tattoo gun. The electric tattoo machine allowed anyone to obtain a reasonably priced and readily available tattoo. Today, tattoo designs, known as 'flash', are mass produced and distributed to tattoo artists.
In the early part of the 20th century it was a seaport and entertainment center attracting working-class people with money. Samuel O'Reilly, the inventor of the electric tattoo machine, set up a tattoo business there. His apprentice, Charlie Wagner (who originally trained as a wallpaper designer) is credited with redesigning a large portion of tattoo art. As tattooing declined in popularity across America, it flourished in Chatham Square. At this time, cosmetic tattooing became popular; blush for cheeks, coloured lips, and eyeliner. With World War I, the flash art images changed to those of bravery and wartime icons.
In the 1920s, tattooing became popular again in other American cities, especially cities that had military bases. After World War II, tattoos became associated with biker gangs, such as the Hell's Angels, and once again lost their appeal. In the 1960s, it was rumoured that unsanitary practices in tattoo parlours had led to an outbreak of hepatitis and the public held the tattoo industry in disrepute. By the end of the decade, thanks to a tattoo artist called Lyle Tuttle, there was a revival of interest in tattoos. Tuttle tattooed several famous celebrities and gave many interviews to television and magazines in which he explained this ancient art.
In the nineties, Chinese character tattoos became popular with celebrities and the trend soon took off with the hoi-polloi. Most characters were translations of names or personal qualities that the bearer wished to achieve. Ancient tribal symbols are also popular.
The three dots on the hand between the forefinger and the thumb, commonly associated with Latino gangs, actually have no origins in crime. They were used by Hispanic youth in the U.S. to signify 'mi vida loco' ('my crazy life'). Some tattoos do have criminal associations, however. In Britain, convicts sometimes tattoo 'ACAB' on their hands. If asked by a policeman what it means, they would say 'Always Carry A Bible'. If anyone else asked, the reply would be 'All Coppers Are Bastards'. Chinese triads in the West were known to tattoo a black dragon and a white bear on their backs but now real triad members would rarely do this as it carries a stigma in American Chinese communities.
Tattoo images have stories associated with them. They are truly bio- graphical pieces. Even those which are, according to their owners, valued solely for their aesthetic qualities can say something about the person. They speak for the artistic tastes of the individual as well as marking a time in that personʼs life. Even if getting a tattoo is a spur-of-the-moment decision for some people, and the tattoo they choose has purely aesthetic value to them, it still marks a moment when that person said “I want to do something different.” Tattoos, it seems, are as much about personality and style as they are about aesthetics and meaning.