I’ve studied fine art for so long that it’s become inseparable from who I am as a person. People in my city know me as “the artist” and often greet me with the question “Are you still drawing?” I’ve been a student of, taught, and exhibited art in my city. I just love representational fine art.
With that being said, it’s not easy to make a living as an artist where I’m located. I was making $9000 a year as an adjunct art professor, and I sold one painting after a year of exhibiting (to be fair, however, I haven’t produced much work as a Ph.D. candidate). I’m a married man, and I have to do something to make a living.
Last summer, I decided to start a tattoo apprenticeship. I found a great tattoo shop with great artists. They appreciated my artistic background and gave me a chance at an apprenticeship. Despite my artistic background, I was humbled immediately. I spent years studying form, color, technique, composition, etc. but little of it seemed to matter.
There were just so many things to consider in tattooing that were foreign to fine art: How do I use this machine? Where is the design going on the body? How should I position the body? Which needles should I use? How deep into the skin should I go? Which inks should I use?
After months of tattooing, my nerves settled, and I could produce a decent tattoo. I was proud of myself. Two weeks later, I received a Facebook message from my client with a picture of a tattoo that had lightened up and faded so much, it looked like it was 30 years old. My heart sank to my stomach. Now, I had to consider how a tattoo would heal. I became discouraged so many times. A painting or drawing just looks how it looks when I’m finished. I can slap a varnish on it and it’ll look great for decades. A tattoo shifts in its appearance as the skin heals.
Despite being discouraged, I wasn’t ready to quit. I began to ask: “Beyond making a living for my family, why am I doing this, and why do people want tattoos?” I needed to find a purpose in doing this, anything to keep me motivated. So many people came into the shop for a tattoo they thought was cool or pretty; others wanted something with deep meaning; others wanted something silly or funny; and still, others just wanted their bad tattoos covered with good ones.
In his book Tattoo History, Steve Gilbert says: “[Tattooing] has always played an important role in the social life of those who practiced it, and throughout history it has appeared in many guises: as a distinguished mark of royalty; a symbol of religious devotion; a decoration for bravery in battle; a sexual lure; a pledge of love; a symbol of group identification; a sign of individuality; a punishment; and a means of marking and identifying slaves, outcasts and convicts. But behind these many uses of tattooing, there lurks a mystery. Why tattoo?” (Gilbert 9).
Why tattoo? It’s such a great question. With television shows and social media, tattooing is enjoying a renaissance. Many people want to adorn their bodies with art and many people want to learn how to do the adorning. People had their reasons to tattoo or get tattoos in the past, but why are we doing them or getting them now, and what will be our reasons moving forward?
In an academic article entitled, “The Renaissance Tattoo,” Juliet Fleming quotes tattooer Madame Chinchilla who “argues that she can see, as her clients can not, what ‘crawls beneath their skin… everything I ink on people is already inside them, their history, sleeping creatures or saints, I only open up the skin and let it out…’” (Fleming 63).
Fleming continues: “To its own practitioners and clients, tattoo art now figures the domain of authenticity – of the properly expressive, and (as the precipitate of ‘opposition’) of the individual… today’s tattoo artist functions as ‘a kind of therapist: a vehicle to help people channel their unconscious urges to the surface’” (Fleming 62-63).
In other words, today’s tattooer is like a Jungian psychotherapist who guides their patient in the search for self-discovery. Tattooing, in this sense, becomes a way of making the invisibility of our spirit visible, and we come to “see” — and therefore potentially know — our own authenticity.
Is it the case that we are merely in pursuit of authentic adornment? If so, what is authenticity? Maybe if we have an answer to this, we would have greater insight into the modern tattoo client and artist. But this is a question that continues to plague philosophers as a question unanswerable with absolutes.
It seems to me to be undeniable, however, that authenticity is uncovered from existential questions that probe the deepness of our spirit. These questions go beyond what we like and don’t like; they go beyond our desire to fit into an accepted style or to stand out by intentionally being different. Such things these questions uncover are not the basis of authentic self-worth.
Instead, the question of authenticity is raised in the search of a truth unique to the individual who asks it, a truth that forever unveils pieces of itself as long as the individual has the courage to ask the ever-deepening question, and this truth — at some point separable from the experienced pain of unfulfilled desire — is beautiful. Authenticity requires turning our gaze within in search of our own personal beauty. Interestingly enough, the tattoo can be an outward expression of this inward journey.
The tattoo also reveals something else interesting about individual authenticity: the search for individual authenticity is not hindered by the need to cooperate with others. The client and the artist must cooperate and compromise in their search for the authentic tattoo. No matter what, the design desired by the client in search of authenticity will be filtered through the artistic sensitivity and personal experiences of the tattooer(s). Originality and authentic representation — in this case — is the result of teamwork.
A personal and beautiful tattoo can bring two strangers together. This is the power of beautiful, authentic art. The authentic and beautiful tattoo crosses boundaries: it translates an inner journey for truth and beauty into an outward expression; it brings together at least two individuals for the purpose of creating an outward expression, and the resulting outer expression possesses the potential to stimulate within others a curiosity for the human experience.
How much the tattoo tells us about ourselves doesn’t stop there, however. The process of getting a tattoo, as we all know, is painful. How we deal with that pain reveals a lot about who we are as people. As human beings, we all experience pain; we all have our struggles. If we can endure pain — if we don’t let it determine how we live our lives — we come closer to reaching our full potential, and we find ourselves better people because of it. Likewise, if we can endure the pain of the tattoo, we can see the beauty and authenticity of our journey embedded in our very flesh. No pain, no gain.
To me, the authenticity of the image, the potential for the image to bring multiple people together, the image’s ability to stimulate curiosity in others, and the requirement that one endure pain to get a tattoo is the magic of the tattoo. Authenticity, cooperation, and endurance are magical components of the tattoo. I use the word “magic” intentionally.
According to Jennipher Rosecrans in her article, Wearing the Universe: Symbolic Markings in Early Modern England:
“The largest subculture that advocated the philosophies and the practices of the corporal inscription were the practitioners of the occult arts. For these would-be magi, the inking of the flesh was a very distinct and very carefully recorded part of magical action… The power of symbols and characters was similarly called upon when an adept desired a more powerful result or aspired to communicate with the angels.” (50, 54)
Maybe tattooing is sacred magic that allows boundaries to be crossed. The pursuit of authenticity begins with the question, a question that ultimately creates the magic of our journey. Maybe, the questions I’ve posed in relation to my experience with tattooing so far will help me find a deeper purpose as a potential tattoo artist.
The magical phrase “abracadabra” supposedly has its roots in Aramaic and means “I will create as I speak.” With that being said, the magic of a good question always creates more questions. I leave us with these: What type of magic are we creating when we adorn our bodies with images? What are we saying about ourselves, and to whom are we wishing to communicate with our adornments?
Fleming, Juliet. “The Renaissance Tattoo.” Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Edited by Jane Caplan, Princeton University Press, 2000.
Gilbert, Steve. Tattoo History: A Source Book. Juno Press, 2000.
Rosecrans, Jennipher Allen. “Wearing the Universe: Symbolic Markings in Early Modern England.” Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Edited by Jane Caplan, Princeton University Press, 2000.