Body art: where beauty is literally skin-deep
A book on paintings and drawings by tattooists focuses on the skill of the work instead of the application
By Desmond Byrne. Books, Issue 207, November 2009
Published online: 18 November 2009
In the past 20 years, western tattooing has rocketed up the social scale from being the transgressive macho badge of sailors, bikers and other ranks to becoming a fashion necessity of middle-class boys and girls, with various schools of tattoo style signifying their subcultural allegiances. Alongside wider social acceptability, tattooing has become more and more technically and creatively refined.
Contemporary tattooists, some with fine-art backgrounds, have, over time, developed particular aesthetics for which their studios are specifically patronised, while countless more commercial concerns cater for a less discerning clientele. Endless
publications, capitalising on the growing popularity of tattooing, proliferate, while a small academic industry produces historical, psychological and sociological works on the subject.
Jo Waterhouse's book differs from these by confining itself to an examination of drawings and paintings made by tattooists, rather than the finished skin-dyed images. These are not preparatory designs, nor are they works executed to inspire and guide prospective clients—the "flash" of the title (a term used to describe designs displayed in books or on the shop walls from which customers can choose). The works are autonomous pieces, closely related to tattoos and tattoo images and styles. With no images of tattooed bodies, we are left to contemplate the art and not think so much about its application.
In her introduction Waterhouse surmises that the popularisation of tattooing has been a mixed blessing for serious tattoo artists. Reductive ideas about designs as mere statement or memento still prevail. Popular consciousness continues to focus on the endurance of pain and expense rather than a creative exchange between artist and client. A great deal of commercial tattooing has little or no aesthetic value other than the biographical or emotional significance to the wearer. Even at the more sophisticated, bespoke end of the market, where ambitious and highly accomplished "custom" work is created, there exists an aesthetic vacuity.
The works featured in Waterhouse's book offer an antidote to such observations. From the confident paintings of Dalmiro, Daniel Albrigo and the illustrative pieces by Gillian Goldstein and Regino Gonzales to the folk-art eccentricity of Erik Von Bartholomaus and Lucy Prior, robust technique and lucid imagination are evident. In these works there is a sense of engagement with imagery for its own sake, of mature and authentic creative process. Waterhouse, by featuring these "high end" works, challenges us to think again about the aesthetic claims of this populist art form.
The writer is a tattooist
Jo Waterhouse, Art by Tattooists: Beyond Flash (Laurence King), 128 pp, £12.95 (pb) ISBN 978185666963
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