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Are Tattoos Fine Art?

Tattoos are an art form, but do they need to be Fine Art?

Darryn Burrows, Tattoo CollectorDarryn Burrows, Tattoo Collector
GREY Journal

As tattooing becomes more and more mainstream, art critics and patrons have begun to accept it as an art form. While museums, art auctions, and collectors begin attempting to invest and acquire tattoos, the debate over tattooing’s legitimacy has intensified. Should tattoos be considered Fine Art? Do they even need to be?

What Will it Take?

Tattoo by Nikko Hurtado

It’s at this point that we need to ask the question, what do accepted Fine Art practices, like painting or sculpture, have that qualifies them for an elevated reputation? Prerequisites like technical mastery, historical significance, and the ability to evoke emotion all seem to come up the most often. If that’s the case, do these apply to tattoos?

Technical Mastery

Tattooing absolutely requires technical skill. You can’t just pick up a tattoo machine and expect to start drawing on human skin like it’s paper. The interaction between the inks used and flesh is an entirely unique sensation.

Under The Skin

Understanding the way an individual person’s skin will take ink is important because not everyone’s skin is weathered, aged, tanned, or moisturized the same. Additionally, tattooists need to make sure their designs hold in the skin for years to come which presents its own set of nuanced technical requirements.

Tattoo by DJ Tambe
Placement

Additionally, artists also need to be very conscious of placement on the body and understand the way their design will move, rest, stretch, etc. A good tattooer will be conscious of the flow of the body, and design their work to fit the space perfectly.

Tattoos exist in concert with the human body. They live and breath with the bearer in a symbiotic relationship. A great tattoo artist understands the human body and adjusts their art to integrate with it seamlessly. These are only some of the basic elements of tattooing, but they’re all specific technical challenges that are unique to it.

All This and More . . .

To continue, there are other aspects of tattooing that exist in other art forms. Like painters, tattooists need to know color theory, shading, and perspective. Like sculptures, tattooers need to understand the human body and the rules of proportion. There are a number of technical skills required of a tattoo artist, all of which are achieved with a combination of hard work, dedication, and talent.

Historical Significance

Close up of the tattooed mummy found at Tarim Basin in China

Unsurprisingly, tattoos are not a modern invention. Tattoo history stretches back to ancient times and is invariably intertwined with culture and customs around the world. In America alone, the changes in society have been reflected and influenced by tattooing.

Tattoo History is World History

Historians and anthropologists can’t deny that tattooing has been tied to human civilization for centuries. The oldest known tattoo dates back to 3100 BCE, and serves as evidence that permanent body art is as much a way of cataloging human culture as other art forms.

Tattooed mummy found in Egypt

To add, Tattoos have been found on mummified remains in Egypt and China. Similarly, Samoan culture has a long history of tattooing where full body coverage can connote social status, dedication, and endurance. These are only some of the cultures where tattooing has been shown to be integral to their society and cultural evolution.

The argument that tattoos don’t qualify as art because they didn’t play a role in recording history is false. If anything the discovery of tattoos on mummies or in records of the past have added a new perspective and understanding to our ancestors.

Move Me

Above all art is meant to evoke emotion. It’s meant to move people and evoke feelings that connect with others. This is something tattoos achieve phenomenally. When they’re at their best, tattoo artists create living illustrations that are as much a reflection of their clients as they are of the tattooist.

Tattoo by Horiyoshi III
Connection and Collaboration

At their best, tattoos are the result of a connection between artist and patron. The strange alchemy of creativity and trust produces something entirely new. The person wearing a tattoo is more than just a canvas, they’re a person with a strong connection to their piece.

“Tattoos, for better or worse, reflect the human experience. Our successes, our joys, mistakes, and failures are all recorded on our skins. And just like life itself, sometimes they aren’t perfect. Sometimes they’re even tragic. But they are real. A tattoo is just ink in skin—it is up to the bearer to ascribe a meaning or value to it.”

Horitaka, owner of State of Grace Tattoo and a senior apprentice of tattoo master Horiyoshi III

In a way, the significance of a tattoo is enhanced by the person bearing it. It lives and dies with the client. The art and it’s owner share a life span, which makes tattooing one of the few artistic practices that are truly ephemeral.

“I draw simply for fun and to have samples to show my clients so they can pick a new design. The creatures depicted take the person’s breath away once they are on his or her skin — and then the two start breathing together, in unison. Human history alters the look of the animals and plants I paint, and when the person wearing them dies, so too do they.”

Horiyoshi III, Japanese tattoo master

Is There More to Fine Art?

Sotheby’s Auction House is one of the most influential art auctions in the world

With the pre-requisites we’ve discussed there are quite a few art forms that could be categorized as Fine Art. Graffiti, dance, stained glass, graphic design, etc. These all seem to fill the qualifications, but don’t typically get grouped in with painting and sculpture as prestigious. What’s the real difference between art and Fine Art?

Christie’s Auction House
It’s All About the Money

In the end, it all comes down to money. As much as museums and critics are loathed to admit it, Fine Art is as much of an industry as any other profession. According to Forbes, the art market’s total value in 2017 was $45-billion. $25-billion of this came from art dealers and $16.9 billion came from auction houses.

Today people collect are not simply because they understand or connect to a piece, but because it’s an investment. In many ways, the name of an artist is worth more than whatever they happened to put on the canvas.

Work done by tattooers is difficult, if not impossible, to sell the way paintings are. As stated previously, tattoos live and die with their wearers, so it’s incredibly challenging for galleries, museums, and collectors to acquire them the traditional way.

New Ways to Collect

Quest Gulliford and Yallzee are well known tattoo collectors

Now that tattooing has shaken off a lot of its cultural stigma and become popularized through social media and TV, there have been more and more people looking for ways to collect it. But a tattoo’s need for skin as made people get creative in how they collect art.

Tattoo Collectors

Actually, there are people that consider themselves “tattoo collectors” and use their own bodies to accumulate and celebrate tattoos. The mentality that comes with being this kind of collector tends to be different than the sometimes impersonal Fine Art method. Tattoos are permanent, so the people who collect them are as passionate about both the artist and the art form.

Kip Fulbeck’s Japanese Tattoo: Perseverance, Art, and Tradition at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
It Belongs in a Museum

While the most obvious way to collect tattoos would be to actually get them, museums have tried a few different ways to showcase tattooing. In 2015 Kip Fulbeck’s life-sized photographs of traditional Japanese tattoos were displayed in the Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

“These are all aspects of tattooing that people don’t always think about. I teach art and I think it’s really important that tattooing be viewed as an art form, not a subculture or a trend. It is an art form that needs to be looked at as much as we look at sculpture or drawing or filmmaking. It’s important it gets recognized that way.”

Kip Fullbeck, in an interview with Shannon Lin for Asiance Magazine

This is probably the closest museums have come to displaying tattoos without having living people come in and stand on a pedestal. Obviously a picture of a tattoo is not a tattoo, but at least the collection shows tattoos as a very human art form.

Tattoo drawings by Aaron Cain (left) and Bob Roberts (right) sold at Guernsey’s
Ownership Without Stakes

To continue, other times drawings done by tattooists become the exhibition. In November of 2015, Guernsey’s Auction House sold 1,500 of drawings done by famous tattoo artists. Final sale prices ranged from $50 to $50,000. But, while these drawings are definitely beautiful, they aren’t actually tattoos. They aren’t in human skin so they don’t come to life in the way they would if they were actually completed.

This is one example of people wanting to treat tattoos like they treat other art forms. They want to own it and collect it, but they don’t actually want it on their body. If they did, people would simply go to the artist in question and pay them for a tattoo. There’s no denying that these drawings are beautiful, but they aren’t tattoos. People who collect them like they are, seem to be missing the point.

“The creatures I draw only come alive on somebody’s skin. This is why I never show my designs as so-called art.”

Horiyoshi III, Japanese tattoo master
Tim Steiner displays the work of Wim Delvoye
The Skin Off Your Back

To add on, a more definitive example of collectors trying to own a tattoo without putting it on their body comes from Wim Delvoye. Delvoye is a neo-conceptual artist from Belgium who tattooed the back of a man named Tim Steiner and signed it like a canvas.

He named the piece “Tim, 2006,” and later sold it to a German art collector for €150,000. Tim Steiner now sits in galleries and museums to display the back piece and has agreed to have the skin excised and preserved after his death. Said skin will then go to the nameless German collector.

Tim Steiner displays the work of Wim Delvoye

This opens up a complicated dialogue about tattooing. The preservation of tattooed skin isn’t necessarily new, but displaying them like art pieces just might be. In the end, one has to wonder if this yet another way for collectors to try and own a tattoo without ever risking their own skin?

“I think a lot of the general public considers us artists, but I don’t think the fine art world knows what to do with us, they can’t own us”

Takahiro Kitamura, Japanese-American tattoo artist

Still, tattoos need living skin to truly be at their best. Even the best preserved dead skin will lack the vibrancy that comes from a piece of art being truly alive. The new trend of preserving inked skin misses a large piece of what makes tattooing singular as an art form.

Why Do Tattoos Have to Be Fine Art?

For a long time, Fine Art has been considered the highest form of art. It’s given the most prestige and reverence while other creative expressions are treated as afterthoughts. Tattoos are art, there isn’t a question about that. They are the result of technical skill, creativity, historical tradition, and profound trust on the part of the client. But why do they have to be Fine Art?

Fine Art these days seems to be defined by money. If an industry treats art as an investment, should Fine Art really be considered the pinnacle to strive for? Tattoos are already loved by millions of people, they don’t need to be accepted as Fine Art to be considered legitimate.

Madeleine Hettich
Madeleine Hettich is a graphic designer, writer, illustrator, and comic book artist. After graduating with a BFA degree (with an emphasis in Visual Communications Design) from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she worked as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer before being hired by GREY. She continues to develop independent illustration and comics projects in her own time. This background gives her a unique perspective when writing about any number of topics.

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