PRINT May 1981

Tattoo: the State of the Art

THE PAST DECADE HAS WITNESSED a significant revival in the art of tattooing. Pictorial evidence of tattooing has been found dating prior to 8000 B.C., at the end of the Ice Age, and the first positive anthropological traces were found on the mummified skin of the Egyptian priestess of Hathor, c. 2000 B.C. It has been practiced among such diverse cultures as the Greeks, Incas, Mayans and Aztecs, the Japanese, the Polynesians and the Maoris, and even among early Jews and Christians. Tattooing has served various functions—decoration, tribal identification, indication of class status (ranging from prostitution and criminality, to nobility among the Thracians and the Japanese emperors), and branding for other purposes of identification (as in Nazi Germany). The practice achieved widespread popularity in Europe following Captain James Cook’s return from one of his voyages to the South Sea Islands in 1774, when he brought back with him a chief known as Omai, “the noble savage.” In an era of extreme romanticism, the heavily tattooed and personable Omai made a strong impression on English royalty, and tattooing took London by storm, eventually filtering down from the nobility to the rest of the populace.

The exoticism of the art lies in the idea that tattooing involves the forbidden or taboo. It is most often associated with fringe or criminal elements of society. Upper-class and well-educated tattoo devotees are thus linked with those whose backgrounds and attitudes are otherwise dissimilar. It is an ironic note that from the earliest times the upper classes have adopted certain lower-class styles and/or activities, based on the assumption that these characteristics would lend them an aura of mystery, idiosyncrasy, adventurousness or exoticism. In turn, many working-class people (as well as criminals and underworld denizens) have coveted and imitated those very attributes that the upper class originally borrowed from them.1

While tattooing has a venerable history among the rich, the famous, the high-ranking and the well-bred (examples that come to mind are Jenny Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston; Prince George of Denmark; Barry Goldwater; Janis Joplin), it still has negative connotations in the minds of most people. Its association with the criminal underworld is widespread, especially because prison tattoos, crudely done by hand by the incarcerated of every society, are almost as prevalent as tattoos associated with naval life. To many they indicate irresponsibility, atavism, rootlessness, sexual licentiousness and the more overt and objectionable forms of stereotypical masculinity.

Because tattooing is painful (except in the case of very small tattoos, where the sensation is short-lived), some people assume that there are sadomasochistic overtones to the process. Similarly, others assume a highly sexual component to exist because of the intimacy between client and practitioner. Much of this is myth, generated by lack of firsthand knowledge, by the boastful and exaggerated tales told by those devotees who wish their group to remain selective, and by the puritanical attitudes of those who, for religious, moral or no longer valid health reasons, wish to see the practice discouraged.

Commercial tattooing in America is done by electric machine, the prototype of which was patented in 1891; it is only in such places as Samoa, Japan and North Africa that the tradition of handwork continues. Generally, the work is done in a shop, or “parlor,” where anywhere from one to a half-dozen tattooists work at once. The walls of such commercial establishments (which do not exist in New York City proper, since tattooing continues to be illegal here) are covered with “flash,” that is, drawings of designs from which the client can select. These drawings constitute a traditional iconography—of hearts, flowers, birds, snakes, skulls, comic figures, dragons and mythological creatures, landscapes, religious subjects, erotica and group insignia of various kinds. The images were first codified by the tattooist Lew Abbott, who came to New York in the 1920s with a series of designs drawn out on cards; whether they were his own work or not is uncertain, but this collection forms the basic repertoire found in most shops today. Designs are handed down, appropriated or simply stolen from other tattooists. Once chosen by the client, they are affixed to the skin by means of a precut stencil, which is greased and covered with powdered graphite, or—in the case of more skilled and experienced tattooists—they are drawn directly on the skin from memory and modified as the work progresses.

The tattooists who run and work in these shops range from such extraordinary technicians as Cliff Raven, in Chicago, who says, “I think of myself as a craftsman who is trying to be an artist,” to self-taught, old-time tattooists, found in small towns throughout America, whose methods are unhygienic, techniques simple, and drawings crude. The lack of sterile conditions in old-time tattoo parlors is responsible for a now unnecessary law, still in effect in New York City, which prohibits anyone from giving blood within six months of having gotten a tattoo; this was to prevent the possibility of spreading hepatitis, a disease which can be contracted through the use of unsterilized needles. In the case of those contemporary practitioners considered to be master craftsmen, clients seeking extensive work, called “body suits” in the trade, will often entrust the design to the tattooist, allowing themselves to be used as “blank canvas.” The term “body suit” came into usage when in early 18th-century Japan an edict against conspicuous consumption (for all but the rich) was issued by the emperor, causing hundreds of Japanese to put their life savings into tattooed “suits,” ending at the neck, elbows and ankles. A loincloth was all that was then needed to be well-dressed, after the wearing of expensively embroidered kimonos was outlawed.

Today, a new group of tattooists as well as clients has emerged. The tattooists, people who have fine arts training and an attitude very different from their predecessors about their work and their audience, generally are well-educated, coming from middle- or upper-middle-class backgrounds, and do not have open shops or work from “flash.” These artists consider tattooing an extension of their interest in painting, sculpture and/or performance rather than a repudiation of those interests. Three such artists whose work is illustrated here continue to work in more than one medium. Mike Bakaty has an extensive teaching and exhibition history as a sculptor, and both Ruth Marten and Jamie Summers show their paintings and sculpture in New York galleries and alternative spaces. All three do custom work exclusively and will not use a design made for one client on another. They utilize such new techniques as single-needle tattooing, eschew most traditional iconography, and see their work on the human body as an expanded arena for the issues being dealt with today in painting, sculpture, drawing, performance and the other plastic and visual arts.

Such artists are changing the nature of contemporary tattooing by virtue of their new and different attitudes toward imagery, technique, source material, clients and the ways in which they see the function of tattooing in general. They have introduced conceptual pieces, pagan elements and nonillustrative designs into the field of traditional tattoo, thus “keeping the art from stagnating,” according to Ruth Marten. “Being a tattoo artist,” says Bakaty, “is different from being a good tattooist.” And some of Jamie Summers’ work is so sophisticated and highly abstract in image, technique and coloration that many people, seeing this work for the first time, assume that the designs have been (impermanently) drawn on the body. Clearly, these artists’ work is closer in theory and practice to that of artists in other media than to the endeavors of their fellow tattooists.

American tattooing’s roots lie in the folk tradition. Early American examples were often crudely drawn, and resemble folk art portraits or figure drawings in their constancy of style; this is especially true of hand-done work, either acquired in prisons or self-inflicted by gang members and other social outsiders. Western tattooing, even today, is characterized by agglomerate designs, often executed by many different tattooists, on a single client, which results in a “collection” of conflicting styles, sizes and images. In contrast, artists like Bakaty, Marten and Summers pay careful attention to the overall effect of the work. This includes the exact placement on the body of an image, its relationship to the subject’s attitudes and beliefs, and the relationship of each image to every other image, whether it is an existing one or one planned for the future. The muscle structure of the client is taken into consideration, as well as changes which will take place as the body ages.

In addition, new techniques are constantly being explored. Whereas most work is done with a machine having three needles forming a single point for outlining (almost always done in black, which later becomes blue) and five needles in a row for the color fill-in, single-needle tattooing, resembling traditional Japanese handwork, has now become popular with tattooists. Summers uses a shading technique by which she blends subtle, often pastel, tones into areas of skin without enclosing them in linear patterns. This produces an elegant, unusual and abstract patterning. Marten has trned increasingly to very primitive, even pagan, abstract markings and to conceptual designs which have no images. Bakaty incorporates both arcane symbols and traditional images, often somewhat altered, into his work. For all three artists, new pigments, in every conceivable color, and refined techniques of applying them have combined with a radically altered attitude toward the nature of tattoo design to make it possible to execute just about anything on the body that can be drawn on paper. The difference is that the work looks better on a living, fluid ground.

For these artists, engraving on the skin requires the same draftmanship, control, and appropriateness of design that any significant drawing on paper entails. But the art of tattooing shares other qualities with more recent developments in contemporary art. Tattoos, like performance art and certain earthworks, have limited duration. They are realized on a living (changing) person, so when the artist relinquishes the work, the product gains “autonomy,” remaining itself while shifting with context or situation. The fact that increasing numbers of fine artists wish to control or dictate the context in which their work is seen, wish to eliminate context altogether, or wish to create their own contexts, is a problem that does not exist for the serious tattoo artist. Similarly, the problem of gallery representation is nonexistent, except when tattoo artists want to exhibit work they have done in other media. While painters and sculptors are often concerned with the permanence of their work, with its long-term esthetic or intellectual effects and with its impact upon the work of their peers, serious tattoo artists know that their work, by its very nature, has permanently altered another human being. It changes not only the client’s self-image but also the way others will see the tattooed person for the rest of his or her life. The dictates of tattooing stress privacy and integrity, as well as extraordinary care, skill, and selectivity on the part of the artist. The names of the clients are never revealed, nor are images of the work used publicly to solicit business, unless the client so wishes.

The reasons for getting a tattoo are as various as the people who get them. For some, it’s a protective device, a way of relating to or removing oneself from others, an identification procedure or a mark of a rite of passage. There also may be magico-religious implications to the act—extensions of a personal mythology or private symbols that are transferred to the body as permanent shamanistic devices to ward off illness or to ensure spiritual or emotional wellbeing. Many people find that they return to childhood images in the selection of a design, or that familiar images acquire new significance when they are being considered as permanent additions to one’s body.

Increasingly, for those who are acquiring anything other than a small piece, contemporary fine arts tattooing is taking on less frivolous, decorative and erotic overtones in favor of a more transcendent, spiritual dimension. For both practitioner and subject, there is a translation from fantasy to fact, from interior sensibility to external manifestation. One extensively tattooed person noted that it is “an atavistic process, making one aware of all kinds of other aspects of life. It’s a process where the collective unconscious is most likely to manifest itself; the images have a timeless quality about them as well.”

For the public at large, there seems to be a naturally voyeuristic curiosity generated by the practice, since it is by nature private; tattooists and clients alike do not generally like to have work done before a crowd, any more than one would wish one’s friends, relatives and any interested strangers attendant at cosmetic surgery. Moreover, convention dictates that the body not be marked above the neck or below the wrists and ankles, indicating that tattooing was long ago respected for its ability to be hidden when necessary or desirable. Today, many people, especially those in the public eye or in professional life, prefer their penchant for body decoration to remain private. The exchange between tattooist and client, therefore, involves a high degree of mutual trust. Tattooing, says Jamie Summers, “is a nonpublic performance through intellectual and intuitive collaboration . . . it is a ritual in order to bring about a crystallization of the psyche.”

For Summers and for other tattoo artists, tattooing is intrinsic to a way of life, and inextricable from the culture to which it belongs. Just as some artists refused to adhere to the conventions of painting and sculpture that prevailed in the 1960s (flatness, lack of images or illusionistic devices, emphasis on the rectangular shape of the support, etc.), extending their explorations beyond the parameters of painting—into theater, architecture, music, language, film and video, performance and the sciences—so, too, artists such as Bakaty, Marten and Summers see their work in a larger context.

Tattooing is finally once again coming into its own as another aspect of the fine arts. A new form of populism is emerging in the arts, a sense that artists no longer wish to address themselves and their work exclusively to each other and to a small, informed audience. Rather, there is an increasing desire to work outside traditional media, to address a nonart public, and to situate the work itself in a context larger than previously thought possible. For Bakaty, Marten, Summers and other artists working throughout the country, the reinstitution of tattooing as a high art, particularly in the United States, is evidence of the more heterogeneous and populist nature of recent American art.

Tattooing today embodies the subject/object relationship to which so much recent art has addressed itself (for example, early body pieces by Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim and Chris Burden, in which the artist was both the subject and object of the work), but it does so in a more complex manner, since the person on whom the work has been done, rather than the artist, takes on the subject/object character. Curiously, tattooing is also traditional, being permanent, graphic, and involving considerable skills of draftsmanship (acquired largely through the apprentice system, which has all but disappeared in the realm of fine arts).

Because tattooists practice on a great variety of people, the art addresses a very wide public, including everyone the client shows the work to, whether deliberately or inadvertently. Beyond that, tattooing gets a response from everyone who comes into contact with it. As Bakaty says, “Everyone in the world has an attitude toward tattooing. No one is indifferent to it.” This might seem enviable, in fact, to the artist working in other media, whose access to the public is determined by the context in which the work is seen, and who often longs for any response at all, be it positive or negative. The tattooed person, on the other hand, is accessible to almost anyone, anywhere, anytime (should he or she so desire), and so therefore is the work of the artist who executed the pieces. Even so, tattooing remains, as an art form, controversial. The idea of permanently altering one’s body is a difficult one for many to accept. Bakaty sees it differently. According to him, “It’s the only form of human expression we have left that has magic to it. Everything else is academic.”

Marcia Tucker, Director of the New Museum, has written extensively on contemporary art. Among her publications are monographs on John Baldessari, Al Held, Barry Le Va, Joan Mitchell, Bruce Nauman and Richard Tuttle. She has also published several articles on the history and current practice of tattooing.



1. A convicted felon, released in custody from prison for a few hours to testify before a homicide grand jury, appeared wearing a Jordache T-shirt. At the other extreme, many of today’s young artists, emerging from school with M.F.A. degrees obtained through the financial support of middle-class parents, have sell-consciously adopted the styles and attitudes of Harlem graffiti artists.

Selected bibliography:

R.W.B. Scutt and Christopher Gotch, Art, Sex and Symbol, South Brunswick, N.J., and New York: A S. Barnes and Co., 1974.
Donald Ritchie, “The Japanese Art of Tattooing,” Natural History, vol. 82, no. 10, December, 1973.
Albert Parry, Tattoo, New York: Collier Books, 1933.
George Burchett, Memoirs of a Tattooist, compiled and edited by Peter Leighton, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1958.
C.H. Fellowes, The Tattoo Book, introduction by William C. Sturtevant, Princeton, N.J., The Pyne Press, 1971.
Hanns Ebensten, Pierced Hearts and True Love, London and Hertford: Shenval Press, 1953.
Spider Webb, Heavily Tattooed Men and Women, introduction by Marcia Tucker, New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1976.