By Virginia Villari
Recently I read the above article which made me feel both glad and annoyed. The piece is about the rise of tattoos into the realm of Visual Art. Considered as an underground folkloric practice for a couple of centuries, tattoos are apparently being given artistic recognition by capital A Art. As a tattooed art curator I felt satisfied about the fact something I’ve always thought has been finally understood but, on the other hand, realizing that the Art World had to wait for tattoos to become a mainstream trend to recognize their artistic value, made me quite sick.
I got my first tattoo when I was 17. Thirteen years later I do have more than one ink…Through this period every time I got a new piece I was carefully selecting the artist and the style, with the intention of adorning my body with beautiful art, suited for me 100%. At some point I started feeling like a collector and my body my museum. And let me tell you, some of those works definitely reach the prices of some visual art I display in the exhibitions I curate.
My passion for tattoos always confined me in a corner: I was the black sheep in my family and a condemned underdog in the professional world, ESPECIALLY in the art world…When I got my first job in a gallery in New York I was so excited to work in the capital of contemporary art, where people are open minded and creativity pushes social and cultural boundaries. So naïve right? On a hot, sunny, late spring afternoon we were installing the gallery’s next show and my tattoos where partially visible from my shirt. The director came and told me to cover them as tattoos did not conform to the gallery’s environment and demeanor. I was new to New York’s corporate art world and this episode shocked me. I couldn’t believe I got reproached for my tattoos in a city like New York; you know I would have expected that in bank not in a contemporary art gallery…
And now I read this article on visual artists incorporating tattoos into their art, which individuates 3 reasons why tattoos never gained respect in the art world: the difficulty of displaying and selling, the fact that tattoos ultimately die with their owner and their background linked to the underworlds of sailors, military, prison, tribes and alternative life subcultures. What’s completely wrong here is to analyze and judge tattoos with the parameters of visual (capital A) Art. Difficulty of displaying and selling? Tattoos are probably the most site-specific art form you can possibly find, therefore they are not made to be shown on a gallery or museum white wall, as much as Renaissance altar pieces are not. The tattoo world has its own expos, open to the general public, where tattoos are on display on tattoos terms, meaning on people who wish to show their tattooed bodies. The tattoo business skyrocketed in the past 5 years and I don’t see any difficulty in selling this type of art, it just has a different way to do it than Visual Art. It’s basically an art form based on commission rather than on a display sort of commerce. In New York some tattooers have a 6 months waiting list and they charge $200 dollars per hour so…
In 2012 Belgian artist Wim Delvoyed presented the installation Tattoo Tim at the Louvre. The piece featured a tattooed Swiss man named Tim Steiner. Basically this guy becomes part of the baroque interior design of the room and just sits on a chair showing his back piece, a composition of Mexican, American Traditional and Japanese styles inks. Tattoo Tim has been purchased in 2008 by German collector Rik Reinking for 150,000 euros. According to the contract, Steiner is required to exhibit himself 3 times a year and his skin will be given to the buyer upon Steiner’s death. This whole thing seems quite creepy to me and this is because the criteria of Visual Art collecting are applied to tattoos. First all, given the price of contemporary art at the latest auctions, 150,000 euros for a human being is definitely too cheap; second of all, here nobody gives a damn about the artists who actually tattoed Steiner but only about the Visual Artist who incorporated him in his installation.
By now several tattoo artists have raised to the ranks of Visual Art, examples include Dr. Lakra, who had a retrospective in 2010 at the Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, and Ed Hardy, who in 1995 curated the groundbreaking show “Pierced Hearts and True Love” at the Drawing Center in New York. Despite the critical attention that these shows caught, tattoos are still pretty much considered low-brow by the art world. And why is that? I think this is because the Fine Art System works hard to remain something for an elite of affluent intellectuals with a presumed refined taste, whereas tattoos are something that everybody can get. Art explicitly declares itself as “not for everybody;” tattoos instead just are, precisely because of their very personal, ritual, commemorative and celebratory nature.
The biggest misunderstanding I found in this article is the confusion between tattoos and Art incorporating tattoos. To show the fact that galleries “are awakening to skin art” writer Margot Mifflin mentions painter Shawn Berber who realized portraits of tattooed people and Sundaram Tagore Gallery that represents Korean artist Kim Joon, who makes digital images of tattooed bodies. None of these cases has really anything to do with tattoos; they just express an interest in tattooed subjects (which is really nothing new as tattooed people always raised public interest, if nothing as freaks.)
Through the years and across countries tattoos have been evolving a lot: new, higher quality inks allow a wider range of styles, techniques and subjects with much more refined details, shadings and depth, fact that gets tattoos closer to paintings. Tattoos deserve a place as Visual Art but not under usual visual art terms. And here I’m not talking about tattoo artists who also make visual art work. Tattoo art uses a specific technique and support, has a certain aesthetic and defined marketing channels that should be appreciated and respected the way they are. Tattoo artists ARE visual artists and shouldn’t need other visual artists to be recognized by the Art World. Hopefully we’ll get there. In the meantime I keep calm and get inked 🙂