In the last couple of decades, a lot has been made of “tattoo artists”. It’s become kind of a big deal. Historically, tattooists have not been known for their fine art qualifications. With a few notable exceptions (Ben Corday and Phil Sparrow come to mind), Western tattooists before about 1970 were not a very artsy crowd. If you were to walk into the average shop with an “idea”, you’d most likely leave disappointed. If it wasn’t on the wall, you didn’t get it. You could occasionally provide artwork and have it done. Somehow all that has turned around. Many new shops don’t have any flash on their walls at all. For those of you who have never been around a tattoo shop at all, flash is a collective term for all the designs hanging on the walls. Traditionally, a tattooist would have to draw and then paint, usually in water color, any design that would be sold in the shop. These designs were displayed prominently on the walls as a reference of available tattoos. I guess this made them artists in a sense, just not very goods ones most of the time. The designs were etched, in reverse, into acetate and stashed, to be brought out when needed. The etched surface would be dusted with carbon powder, tapped of excess powder and then placed on skin that had been coated with something wet, oily or greasy. Viola, a perfect stencil of the design. The problem being that this stencil was VERY easy to smudge or erase. Designs had to be simple and had to be tattooed and wiped very carefully. It was imperative to start at the bottom and work your way up, very carefully wiping only the areas already tatooed. Very limiting. You can still see some older tattooists starting every design at the bottom out of habit. At some point around nineteen Vietnam, someone figured out that you could use a Thermofax machine, the kind that used to produce masters for all those spiritmaster copies we loved to sniff in school, to produce a stencil. It was a revelation in tattooing. Suddenly you could create complex designs, print them on the skin and have a reasonable chance of them staying on long enough to complete the outline. Tattoos took on a whole new complexity. Designs never dreamt of became commonplace. It opened the minds of tattooists and the general tattoo public to a whole new world of possibilities.
At a certain point, for whatever reason, educated artists started to gravitate towards the craft of tattooing, a craft with a decidedly low brow reputation. They started producing work with the help of stencils that actually lasted and then moved on to designing on the skin itself with markers and pens. Suddenly some tattoos could actually be considered “fine art”. Ed Hardy and Shotsie Gorman were two of the more visible leaders of this movement. People became enamoured of the new “custom” tattoos that were increasingly showing up in publications, mostly biker magazines like Easy Rider, although Ed and Shotsie both published very high quality, if short lived, magazines. The public became more educated on the possibilities and then more demanding of custom artwork. This was, for the most part, a good thing.
Today the business is overrun with “artists”. Even the ones who aren’t. The range in quality is staggering. People who couldn’t draw their way out of a paper bag are attempting work that no self respecting tattooist should ever try. On the other hand individuals like Shige, Filip Leu, and a host of others are producing nothing less than “fine art”. The problem is, just as in the fine art world, not everyone has the skills or talent to produce work of this type. Just as there will only ever be one Van Gogh, there will only ever be one Kore Flatmo. If you are one of the people lucky enough or dedicated, patient, wealthy enough to have a piece by one of these guys, then awesome. If you are not, then no amount of self delusion will make a lesser tattoo into an original from a great tattoo artist. There are painters who make a career out of copying great works. Most tattooist today are placed in the same position because of the demand for custom original work. Where once a good handle on the craft was all that was necessary to make a good living, now a tattooist needs to either be, or pretend to be, a good artist. The majority of really bad times for me in the business have come from pretending to be a better artist than I really am. Not that most people could tell the difference. I could. As I got older and more burned out and wiser and became a better artist through sheer perseverance, I became more comfortable discussing my limitations with clients. Most of them really appreciate the honesty. Some of them don’t want to hear it, can’t stand to have their myths busted. Oh well. I still feel there is a place for good solid, well crafted tattoos that aren’t necessarily original, custom images. Find a great image and make a tattoo out of it is what I tell people. If I could create amazing works of art, my work would be in collections and galleries around the world and in books of my own original works. What I can do is make a nice tattoo, and whether you’d like to hear it or not, most tattooists are in the same boat.
So if you want a great original piece of tattoo art, great. Just be willing to do whatever it takes to get to the guy who’s work you really admire. Be willing to travel. Be willing to pay whatever he asks. Be willing to wait until your name comes up on the waiting list. Just don’t delude yourself that your local guy is gonna give you that perfect Shige tattoo. He’s not, no matter what he says. I’ve never seen a Van Gogh copy sell for millions of dollars, have you? However, your local guy probably does have a few things he does particularly well, perhaps many. Tune into his strengths, his likes and dislikes and work with him to get your original piece. Just remember that if you insist on working with a tattoo “artist” it will be mostly about them. If you work with a tattooist, it will be mostly about you.
Or just walk in, point at the wall and pick one. Now that would be old school.