New York

“Pierced Hearts and True Love”

Drawing Center

“Pierced Hearts and True Love: A Century of Drawings for Tattoos” is a sprawling show with over a century’s worth of work from more than 80 artists, including flash (readymade tattoo images), advertising, some portraits, some actual vintage-and modern-tattoo machines, a gorgeously produced catalog with essays by three PhDs (Mark Taylor, Margo DeMello, Alan B. Govenar) and two tattooists (Don Ed Hardy, Michael McCabe). Here, there are none of the clichés endemic to shows centered on tattooing: no photos of anyone with tattoos, no portraits of anyone getting tattoos, no lame/smug captions about how great it is to have tattoos, or, conversely, how awful it is to be marginalized because you have tattoos. Instead, “Pierced Hearts and True Love” constitutes nothing less than the beginnings of a history, with all the trappings—labels, attributions, essays, artifacts.

Which is good. Because for a long time, it was as if tattooing had been invented the very day you went to get your first tattoo. That was cool, we liked it that way and so did the tattooists, but like most kinds of cool, this stance bred a certain kind of insecurity—the margins are lonely as well as supportive. And even outlaws want what they have not got. So at a certain point, things began to change; Don Ed Hardy (who curated the show along with Ann Philbin and James Elaine of the Drawing Center) had a lot to do with that. When, in the ’70s, Hardy began to emerge as a tattoo artist, unofficial chief tattoo historian, and spokesman for the still-nascent “legitimate” tattoo world, he worked hard to change tattooing’s image from weird sideshow attraction and redneck/lowlife practice to actual art form. The Modern Primitives issue of Re:Search, in 1989, made a difference, too: it seemed as if you couldn’t go into a tattoo shop without finding a copy, right next to the tattooist’s portfolio, and no hipster’s library was complete without one. Tattooing still seemed like a weird thing to do, even in that context, but it was smarter somehow, keeping company with J. G. Ballard and William Burroughs and Survival Research Labs—more like something worth respecting.

Which it was all along, anyway; “Pierced Hearts and True Love” proves that if nothing else. Look at George Burchett’s drawings from the beginning of the century and you can’t help but marvel at what he was able to do with limited training and resources. Burchett’s work would look good anywhere, on anyone’s body, in anyone’s gallery or museum (the portraits of his wife are especially spectacular). And when you look at the drawings from the Horiyoshis I, II, and III, it’s like the point of a needle opening into a hidden culture hundreds of years old. The same with the clarity and directness of the early American work: Sailor Jerry’s ships and Rock of Ages, Dainty Dotty’s 1940s babes, and endless anonymous flags and flowers. So what if the work was done variously for and by yakuza and whores and sailors and assorted crazies: you can feel their power just the same, no less beautiful, some of them, for being the product of an outlaw practice.

If there’s a complaint worth voicing about this show, it has more to do with a sin of omission than anything else: while you’re looking at the show, tattooing will seem to have nothing except a history. As if everything in the show is equally interesting, simply because it has to do with tattoos. Ultimately, this lack of discrimination betrays the old insecurities. It’s as if by saying that tattooing was the oldest art form, practiced everywhere all the time, often enough, it would somehow be legitimized as a contemporary art form. As if, with enough of all the right trappings, it would suddenly become “real” art. Without anyone worrying about the quality of work currently being produced. No judgments are made, no one’s work is set up as a standard. Some of the contemporary choices are just plain awful: Jeff “Tux” Farrar? Freddy Corbin? Scott Harrison? Respected names, but none of them can draw at all. What happened to Fillip Leu, Kari Barba, Marshall Bachelder—artists who represent a significant part of the contemporary tattoo world’s cutting edge? (These choices also betray, I think, old/current tattoo-world politics, which are just as ugly as anyone’s.)

In the end, though, you get what the medium and the moment demand—just like you hoped for, just like you expected. It’s all over the walls here: naked chicks and flags and snakes with knives, screaming eagles, and bloody panthers, and Jesus. And if “Pierced Hearts and True Love” seems abject because of all that, it is: tattooing remains abject, in spite of everything. You can see it written all over the walls in this show: history availeth not, in the end. And tattoos are beautiful precisely because of that. Because they’ll always be about blood and death and loss. About the apparently momentary and seemingly limitless pain of forgetting and remembering and identity.

Mark Van de Walle