Time: Tattoo Art Today

This is the last week of the Time: Tattoo Art Today exhibition at Somerset House, which brings together artworks from 70 of “the world’s most influential tattoo artists”, including Ed Hardy, Horiyoshi III and someone called Mister Cartoon. All of the included artists were commissioned to produce a new work on the theme of time, using any medium (apart from skin!).

It wasn’t difficult for me to like most of what I saw, given so many cross-overs with the fantastical and dark art of comic books, films and games of which I’m so fond.

‘Dark things’ in art have always enthralled me (as though I haven’t quite managed to shake my teenage infatuation with feeling distant and listening to The Downward Spiral).  As such, I took well to the vast array of skulls, wilting flowers and pale girls – so-called memento mori, symbols used as reminders of our impending death and the transient nature of all things.  All a bit of downer, really, but a visually sumptuous one at that.

It wasn’t surprising that most of the artists interpreted the theme of time in these morbid terms.  Tattoos and death go hand-in-hand. Somerset House and the curators, tattoo artist Claudia De Sabe and publisher Miki Vialetto, could have easily called the show Badass Skulls and Hot Dead Girls: Tattoo Art Today, though perhaps that would have been a bit too obvious.

A particularly memorable ‘dark’ work was Nicholas Baxter’s Heals All Wounds, which was simultaneously engrossing and revolting.

The works got me thinking about why death features so prominently in tattoo art. Discussions with a tattooed friend of mine, together with my own thoughts about what it would be like getting one, suggest the act can be a very life-affirming one – capturing a positive feeling, experience or aspiration and making it permanent.

Nevertheless, believing that such a feeling, experience or aspiration at a specific time in your life is of such relevance that permanent marking is worthwhile also speaks of a YOLO attitude. In the face of life’s uncertainties and the conscious and/or subconscious inevitability of death, why not get a tattoo in your late teens or twenties, with little regard for how you’ll feel about it in ten, twenty or fifty years’ time? How you feel in the here and now is what’s important, and focussing on this might draw attention away from the moment you breathe your last.

I wonder also whether there’s an element of control.  Death is, of course, a scary unknown.  Branding yourself with a symbol of death and carrying it around might go some way to allaying the fear. In general, people get tattoos of their own volition, which means they also generally wear them proudly and explicitly (tattoos received when drunk notwithstanding).  I imagine that actively choosing a morbid symbol and then strutting your stuff with it literally on your shoulder can project a powerful image to both yourself and others.

To be fair to the curators, some other types of content did also feature: some trippy astral projections and, that other go-to place for tattoos, East Asia.  (These were still pretty dark though).

Taking a step back, I think this focus on content is actually one of the obstacles for tattoos gaining acceptance within the wider artistic community. Given that so many are about well-formed, detailed and symbolic imagery, together with clients’ narrow expectations, there’s limited scope for these artists to try new styles and executions. Who, after all, wants an abstract work permanently etched onto their body? Or a tattoo artist that pushes limits by inking with a blindfold or using cuttlefish shells instead of regulated, sanitised needles?

This is why the show’s basic concept, of getting skin-artists to work on different media, is such a strong one. It creates an opportunity to see them spread their wings (and not risk a lawsuit if something goes wrong).

On the flip side, it was disappointing not to see a wider range of styles and media given this liberation from working on living skin. There were only a handful of three-dimensional or sculptural works, for example.

I’d be very interested to see the results of an even tighter brief: forcing some of the artists to avoid figurative forms altogether, using only abstract shapes or exploring in a totally unconventional direction.  Or – even more trying – if the theme was on something inherently positive instead, such as ‘the beauty of life’ or ‘things that make me feel warm and fuzzy inside’.  This might be a bit painful for them, and perhaps even myself as the viewer, but then so is a tattoo.

You can find more information about the show here.  All works on display are available for purchase at the Rizzoli Bookshop.


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