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An old friend, sitting high on some comforting moral ground, once said to me that tattoos are now so ten a penny that it is more of an original act to not get inked than to tread that historically well-worn path of pleasure and pain. Although this is probably statistically incorrect, the point addressed an interesting truth in that we are part of the first generation where the concept of body as canvas is more or less mainstream. I found out years later that the same friend had eventually scrambled down from his ivory tower and happily succumbed to the temptation. The truth is, it is both compellingly tempting and delectably addictive.

I in fact spent last Friday morning having an old and ill-advised tattoo covered with a rather spectacular abstract design by Flaming Art Tattoo in my nearby Crayford. Technically this is my 3rd tattoo, although I am left now with only 2, my initial choice a Celtic triangle design on my right shoulderblade dating from 3 days after my 18th birthday (11 distant years ago); it’s attraction was part rebellious indignation at parental disapproval, but mostly just an instinctive connection with the idea that skin can be as much a canvas as vellum, wood, paper, board etc. I had already started to develop, at this young age, feelings which would continue and expand; passionate beliefs I still hold today and which run throughout everything I say and do.

Listening to a radio programme yesterday I was reminded of this as I realised that the question which blighted my whole university experience is still grinding on and is likely to do so for as far as I can foresee. ‘What is Art?’ To me the definition is clear, it is indefinable. In the same way people will continue to ask ‘What is Love?’, which I suppose is an attempt to search for guidance, to know which decisions to make, which artworks to buy, which ones to like. But, despite claims to the contrary, to know the history of art does not mean you are able, or qualified, to designate between good Art and bad Art; of this, as a graduate of the subject, I feel certain. Many people disagree, Grayson Perry spoke in Start the Week recently of what he considers to fit these categories (although he did detail in his first Reith lecture yesterday an interesting view that the quality of artworks is judged via a natural distillatory process whilst they move through the art world) but I have always been strongly of the opinion that Art itself is both everywhere and everything. To classify Art only as within the man-made sphere is to me a shocking oversight of the absolute beauty of nature. We FEEL it. Not only nature in the traditional sense; flowers, plants, living creatures, geology, but also in circumstance, coincidence, the way things look and are seen. Every day, even in the seemingly most dull situations or moments; light shining through trees, reflections on windows, line formations in buildings, landscapes, the way a gum mark and a puddle on paving can create an interesting composition. But conflicting definitions of art continue and tattooing in particular, like graffit art, has always been considered a ‘low art’ amongst the contemptible Brian Sewells of this world, if they would deign to consider it Art at all. Rejected by the high-brow crowd as being the domain of prisoners and sailors, it was always written off as being for a class of people deemed unqualified to know what art is. As technology speeds ahead and tattoos become increasingly beautiful and complex, I hope these people are beginning to eat their words.

Anyway, entering my local (but extremely well-renowned) tattoo studio on Friday morning at 11am, I hastily produced from my handbag a large sleeve bursting with example images. Not entirely sure what it was that I wanted, this was my last chance at a design on this very painful spot; an entirely necessary cover up of the result from a disastrous spur of the moment decision, of which the story goes something like this:

Towards the end of a debauched hen weekend in Ibiza in 2010 (need I really say more?) a friend, the hen, stated boldly that she was planning to get a tattoo on her foot proclaiming ‘I *heart* Ibiza’. Having already planned to acquire another design myself at some point in the near future, I went foolishly with the spirit of the moment and decided to immortalise the signature experience of the holiday (a distinctly raucous evening at Pacha nightclub) through imprinting the club logo, a pair of cherries, on my ankle. Not only was this a terrible, terrible decision on all fronts, but add to it that 1. Said friend sensibly bottled out at the last minute, leaving me to venture forward on pride alone and 2. The inevitable language barrier culminated in me being utterly certain that the tattooist sternly instructed me to keep it entirely dry. He didn’t, of course, a fact which became all too clear in a moment of horror two weeks later when the huge scab which my tattoo had become, suddenly made a swift exit. Rather ironically, I was away on another hen do, this time in Brighton. As we all leaned in to see what was left, my strangled cries of ‘MY TATTOO FELL OFF!’ rang echoing through the corridors of the premier inn, followed swiftly by bursts of cackling and roaring laughter from my companions. The result of this debacle has been quite at home on my ankle for the past 3 years, but thankfully, no more.

After a mere 20 mins of discussion with my esteemed tattoo artist Martin and another 10 mins of his instinctive freehand drawing, I was shown an outline sketch of his proposal. Very nice, I thought, but seeing it without colour or shading makes it pretty difficult to judge the final result. You are entirely dependent on the vision of your artist, the imagery which is forming in their mind’s eye; it’s a highly pressured and skilled role which they step into bravely. They don’t get to spend weeks doing studies or  have the option to start again if they don’t like how it seems to be going. One chance to get it spot on; now that’s skill.

The final result (after 3hrs of just about bearable pain) was exactly what I wanted; an abstract composition combining my favourite colours, the hummingbird (national symbol of Trinidad, the home of my father’s family line), monochrome vintage flowers and the symbol of peace, an achievable yet still mostly uncharted territory in which I believe passionately. Although there are many morals to this story, the most obvious being do not get nightclub logos permanently printed onto your body, the most important, I think, is to respect the art of tattoo, it’s beauty, skill and intricacy; it’s veterans of craft producing unique works of art, to whom I will be forever grateful and utterly in awe of.

My tattoo was envisaged, designed and produced by Martin Ellis at Flaming Art Tattoo in Crayford.

BEFORE - The infamous cherries

BEFORE – The infamous cherries

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AFTER

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Initial stencil

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The Artist’s Palette

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?