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How can a tattoo be seen as a work of art?

Dominic Johnson
Dominic Johnson Departure 3 300x225 How can a tattoo be seen as a work of art?

(c) Briony Campbell

In late October, the tattooist Alex Binnie will create the second of two tattoos upon the skin of my hands, in a live performance called Departure (An Experiment in Human Salvage). We’ll be accompanied by three guest artists, whose performances will complement – and perhaps complicate – the attempt to shed new light on the status of tattooing as a practice on the contested border between fine art, folk art, or craft.

How can the procedures of tattooing – the painful depositing of layers of inks below the surface of the skin – be reframed as performance? How can a tattoo be seen as a work of art? The use of tattooing in performance relates to a broader use of body modification techniques in visual art – usually painful acts such as piercing and scarification – most notably in the work of London-based artists Ron Athey, Franko B, or Kira O’Reilly.

While such work is sometimes misread as a symptom of the artist’s masochism, the pain involved is somewhat incidental to the production of a lasting image: as a spectacle that has a lasting effect on its audiences, but also in the sense of a permanent trace on the skin of the artist. Tattooing takes its place alongside other similar techniques for puncturing, cutting, or otherwise marking the skin towards the production of strong imagery in art and performance.

Commercial tattooing has undergone a boom in popularity over recent years, with the number of tattoo studios in Great Britain reportedly doubling in the last three years. This may suggest an increase in the acceptability and visibility of tattooing, partly due to the distancing of custom tattooing from their somewhat archaic association with sailors, soldiers, criminals, hookers, and other supposed ne’er-do-wells, and also partly thanks to the growing prevalence of tattoos on the bodies of celebrities.

However, the use of tattooing in or as performance is less familiar, but draws on an older, rich tradition of exhibition and display of tattooed persons in European culture. These include: the little-known figure of Jean Baptiste Cabris, a French sailor who exhibited his heavily tattooed body around Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century, after being tattooed in the Marquesas. Or ‘the Great White Chief’ John Rutherford, an Englishman who was exhibited as a ‘living specimen’ in aristocratic circles in the 1820s and 1830s, after supposedly being captured and forcibly tattooed in New Zealand. These histories of exhibition and display inspired me to develop a performance that put the experience of tattooing centre-stage, as it were, by privileging the live action of permanent mark-making, and the piece was first shown at Fierce Festival in Birmingham in March 2011.

The framing of tattooing as the defining technique of an art practice has more immediate precedents, and constitutes a small subcultural history of visual culture. Indeed, the art historian Matt Lodder recently discussed some art works involving tattooing, reading them in terms of the ways they articulate the theme of affiliation and social bonds in interesting ways. He mentions an infamous performance by Santiago Sierra – 160cm Line Tattooed on Four People (2000) – in which the artist commissioned a tattooist to draw a permanent line across the backs of four participants. Sierra’s piece provokes serious and unresolvable ethical questions, and indeed this may be the key achievement of his practice (Claire Bishop argues as much in her recent book on participatory art, Artificial Hells). Other artists have appropriated tattooing in performance towards more ethically agreeable ends, in powerful and visually striking works.

Over a series of performance-installations, Sandra Ann Vita Minchin has commissioned a tattooist to recreate a painting by the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Jan Van Davidz de Heem. The resulting image – which took 120 hours to create – is a massive permanent image of the painting across her back. The theme of permanence is key to the work. The work’s title, Ars Longa, Vita Brevis (‘Art is Long, Life is Short’), reminds us of the odd status of the tattoo as a living artwork, whose permanence conflicts with the ephemerality of performance.

The images created in tattooing may well seem disconcertingly permanent – which provokes anxiety and hand-wringing among commentators – although its volatile permanence is generally limited to the life of the wearer, which is often shorter than that of conventional drawings and paintings (a problem Minchin has overcome by arranging for her skin to be preserved after her death). If the prospect of archiving skin seems macabre, it’s worth acknowledging that similar preserved tattooed canvases are available for viewing at medical museums, such as St Bartholomews Pathology Museum at Queen Mary, University of London, and the Wellcome Collection.

In another striking series of performances, Mary Coble has had her whole body tattooed –without ink – using tattooing as the basis for a provocative feat of physical endurance. In Note to Self (2005), Coble collected information about homophobic attacks, and had the name of the victim and the location of her or his assault tattooed in a monstrous list across the back of her body, from her neck down to her legs. Coble intimates the physical hardship of a minority under continual attack, and she uses the controlled violence of tattooing to memorialise the suffering of others.

In the second performance, Blood Script (2008), tattooing acts a metaphor for psychic endurance. She amassed an archive of words used in verbal assaults, and had them tattooed, verbatim, on the front of her body, in a large and bold gothic script. Tattooing without ink produces a crisp bloody line, and the marks fade with time to leave subtle scarring. However, as with all scars, Coble’s flare up in coming months and years, reddening under heat or cold (she tells me that the word ‘Bitch’ often emerges in a hot shower). I see this as a perfect metaphor for the experience of verbal assault, where the insult might leave a meagre (metaphorical) wound, but its aftereffects return to haunt the victim when one might least expect it to.

In these and other examples, tattooing suggests a novel means of expanding the repertoire of artistic tools of the trade. These developments will make some audiences feel squeamish. Such discomfort should not suggest that artists are out to shock, or out to impress. Rather, the concomitant emotional or physiological reflexes – the flinch, the shiver, the grimace – are some of the potential feelings that might usefully take their place among an expanded range of sympathetic responses to the use of new techniques in art and performance.

‘SACREDat Chelsea Theatre starts on 19 October 2012, Dominic Johnson’s ‘Departure (An Experiment In Human Salvage)’ is on Thursday 25 October 2012. For more information visit www.chelseatheatre.org.uk

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  • Dominic Johnson

    Thanks for your comment! I agree, a fuller history would definitely include Lee Wagstaff — as well as other artists who have used tattooing in their work, who I didn’t mention, like Marisa Carnesky, Traci Kelly, Shelley Jackson, Tagny Duff, Wafaa Bilal, Wim Delvoye, and others…

  • http://www.facebook.com/julian.rose3 Raphael Nora Rose

    Of course tattoos can be art, maybe even Art. But a cohesive artistic vision is necessary, and a sustained vision (these things don’t appear magically).

  • http://www.facebook.com/TheFamousOMG Lauren Barri The-Famous Holste

    Brilliant. Love learning about the contextualisation of Departure among these other practices.

  • alancraigie

    All people that get tattoos aren’t idiots, just idiotic.

  • Johnrambo1

    Tattooing bridges the divide between fine art folk art and craft. It’s some of the most relivent art being made now.


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