At 11.30am last Sunday morning, when by all rights I should have been curled up in a duvet having my brain comfortably numbed by T4, I was instead watching a large man have ink punched into the skin under his chin with what initially looked like a shark’s tooth tied to a piece of wood. I witnessed this bizzare sight at the Great British Tattoo Show, being held for the first time this year at the Olympia in Hammersmith.
I was soon informed by the boyfriend that this was the traditional form of Maori tattooing, using sharpened albatross bone, dipped in ink, tied to a stick and tapped with another piece of wood to break the skin and insert the dye. Although a bit of a self-confessed tattoo lover, I admit this was a pain barrier too far for me. Not so for many others, though, who rushed to get their names down for the next booking. The Maori tattooing was one of the better stalls at the convention, which was overall sadly disappointing and had a cheap, amateur and chucked together boot-fair aura to it, but did spark some interesting topics of debate.
I was struck at this ‘convention’ by the seemingly unshakeable bond between the tattoo sector and half-naked women writhing around in their underwear. The ‘entertainment’ seemed a bit gratuitous. Actually, very gratuitous. Whilst watching some young, clearly inexperienced girls on stage trying to dance seductively and failing miserably, I got a familiar uncomfortable feeling. That same feeling of discomfort I got whilst walking through the red light district in Amsterdam in broad daylight – that this was seedy, surreal and above all, awkward. It’s a shame, as the tattoos themselves were fabulous. I am by no means a prude, but I wished that the girls would wear shorts and strappy tops and just be the canvas for the tattoos, without all the sleaze. It gave me feminist rumblings in my soul which I couldn’t ignore. If only the tattoos were about the tattoos, whether they are on young or old, man or woman, breast or beer belly.
The whole idea of woman as sex object is entrenched in this atmosphere though – one of the most popular types of tattoo is the pin-up girl, or the naked woman with the impossibly big breasts. These types of tattoo were displayed by men long before it became acceptable in modern society for women to take part in this culture. They could have and still could be seen as, men attempting to possess the image of woman by having them permanently represented on their body. When do you ever see ‘pin up men’ tattoos? Ironically, a Google search for that exact phrase gave the top result as ‘pin up girl tattoos for men’. It may be tradition, but surely this just perpetuates the now hopefully outdated view that the purpose of the female body is purely to satisfy the male gaze.
The flip side of this argument, of course, is that this is the empowerment of women and the reclaiming of our bodies. Women who choose what they want to do with their bodies and have pride in who they are and their femininity. Absolutely. To be on an equal footing with men in this culture, we should be able to produce art on our bodies in the same way and be viewed in the same way. You could say this has improved somewhat as tattooing has become more socially acceptable, but the idea of the tattooed woman as loose and trashy is ultimately still portrayed today. Tattooing is still seen as a predominantly male experience and women who have tattoos are seen as trying to be like men. This association antagonises every conservative echelon of society and inevitably results in women with tattoos automatically tagged as ‘bad girls’. A book on the philosophy of tattooing by Robert Arp discusses this idea and looks at how “The idea of tattooed women as sexually promiscuous or deviant remains an enduring misogynist stereotype”. I agree, and by linking tattooing to naked women and seductive ‘seven veils’ style dancing, we only serve to perpetuate that view.
So why isn’t tattooing given more credit as an art form? Why is it forced to showcase itself in this ‘alternative’ way? I know the answer really, it’s art elitism. It’s Brian Bloody Sewell. In my view, tattooing has to be one of the most technically skilled art forms. The artists get one chance to produce. No rubbers, no new pieces of canvas. They have to get it right that first time or you are marked with a bad tattoo forever. I know this does happen, inevitably, but there are many great tattoo artists out there who create stunning pieces of art on the canvas of the human body day in, day out.
Tattoo has become an art form in itself, but in the same way as graffiti art has, ie. it is a self-confessed art form. Before the Banksy explosion brought graffiti art to the masses, it was a separatist movement, with equal animosity between the artists and the art establishment. In many ways it still is, but you now often see these works in gallery settings, something you rarely or never see with tattooing. Perhaps this is how they want it, and in many ways I don’t blame them. Why should they bow to the elitists? Why ‘sell out’?
But I would love to see a coming together of the art world and the tattoo world. Throw off the biker clichès and the stereotypical prosecco-filled private views and merge together to create a new form of display. Somewhere between Gormley’s static figures and Emin’s humanism, with the tattoo culture at its centre. With the body as canvas we are the art. We are both the messenger and the recipient – from Us to Us. When you look at it like that, what could be more empowering?