“Tattoo art – meet academia”
Tattoos: Immediate Gratification & Addiction
In the tattoo world there is a common phrase, “tattoos are addictive”. Once received the freshly inked are said to start envisaging other potential designs, placements and projects. Perhaps this propensity could be simplified into economic terms and, considering the highly detrimental lasting effects of bad tattoos, rightly be classified as an addiction.
Outside of genuine cultural practices popularized tattooing trends can broadly be considered as a post-modern, flattening of heritage. It is now perfectly common to see those of clear Caucasian descent with full traditional Japanese sleeves. Non-Buddhists covered in Thai temple writing they couldn’t read or translate if their life depended on it and Polynesian armbands on Americans that haven’t left the country. The intent is not to restrict or judge their choice simply to state that the markings themselves have now frequently been reclassified as stylistic preferences.
There is no way to objectively classify taste. As history is often overlooked or mashed together, skill in application and design is everything. ‘Authenticity’ now rests with the tattooist. Irrespective of the subject matter there are two differentiating principles: talent and uniqueness. In the same way that Picasso would not have painted a great Jackson Pollack – talent arises from the selection of and dedication to a specific set of techniques. This does not imply that the content need remain uniform. Every artist has a particular skill set best suited to their own formula of creativity. Talent connotes a representative skill set whereas uniqueness means the artist does not rely on works already completed. Without their skill set work is reduced to duplication. In tattooing, technique is an additional consideration. Using skin as their canvas an artist might be gifted at recreating classic paintings or portraits. The uniqueness here is not derived from the designs per-se but from the artists’ ‘proprietary’ application technique.
The classifiers of talent and uniqueness set a reasonable benchmark of quality. The difference between good and bad body art being potentially harmful duplication without proprietary or noteworthy technique. A bad tattoo is then a culturally void, inferior replication. On top of which tattoos, except for painful and costly removal, are permanent. A bad tattoo might not only be artistically substandard but could damage the skin and remain an indelible public scar (damage here referring both to the possible physical and aesthetic detriment). Changing personal or cultural significance of these markings are, by their locked temporal nature, unforeseeable. The full extent of the harm able to be caused by a bad tattoo is then too primarily realizable well after the procedure.
When judging bad tattoos quantity becomes a contributory concern. A single bad tattoo might stand out as such when viewed in isolation. Whereas a person that has dedicated significant portions of skin to bad tattoos may transform these pieces into a ‘collection’. The dedication itself lending authenticity or credibility to the substandard work which is then able to be viewed as a whole. In a ‘strength in numbers’ kind of mentality, a bad tattoo collection might often be held as an a-posteriori, justifiable choice.
In pre-internet years ignorance to the various levels of quality possible in body art might have been a plausible rationale for the selection of substandard work. This coupled with much higher barriers to entry for international travel and the likely geographical proximity of average studios meant options may have appeared to be limited. Today the average cost of tattooing classifies it as more of a luxury pursuit. If one could afford a large tattoo from a typical studio one would also most likely have sufficient means to acquire adequate disposable income for others. Meaning the average tattoo-seeker would be able to research multiple studios as well as travel further away from home for the appointment.
In an open economy the fact that artists who produce exceptional work and artists who produce substandard work still exist affirms two points. Firstly, there is wide spread recognition of the differentiation between the two. Secondly, there remains a demand for both. Here we can explore the choosing of good or bad tattoos in economic terms. The most influential psychological factors of selection being immediate gratification and addiction.
Actions can be simplified into perceived costs and rewards. Costs actions are those that require resources for completion. To file your taxes, pay your bills, go to school or finish the housework could all be considered costs. Actions with anticipated benefits are rewards. Usually rewards make you feel good or add value. The question of gratification, immediate or delayed, then comes down to the perceived costs and rewards of an action within a timeline.
A person can be said to be ‘sophisticated’ or ‘naïve’ when it comes to understanding the perceived costs and rewards of their choices. The more in line one’s own understanding of the actual costs or rewards of a given situation is with their choices the higher the level of sophistication. A naïve is someone unable to properly reason or consider the effects of their actions. Immediate gratification has negative connotations because costs are avoided and only perceived instant rewards sought, potentially leading to greater albeit delayed costs. A sophisticate could be distinguished by their capacity for delayed gratification.
Self awareness should not be overly celebrated just quite yet though. It has been concluded in numerous studies that recognition of a problem with self control might conversely worsen the situation. Sophisticates may reason that since they know they might have a problem with something down the line they might as well get it out of the way and do it now. Here we venture into the idea of addiction. In consideration of delayed or immediate gratification the addicted mindset can reason that the worse the potential future indulgence might be, the less damage current indulgence poses. The predilection for indulgence or immediate gratification then becomes a justifiable pursuit based on self-predicted behavior. In either sophisticates or naives the timeline over which actions will properly be judged is often skirted for a variety of reasons.
Although traditionally linked with chemical dependencies such as drug and alcohol consumption, addiction encompasses a range of behaviors. To be addicted is to be psychologically hooked to a certain action or set of actions despite the consequences. Just as smokers inhale regardless of the cancer warnings on the packets, sex addicts continue promiscuous behavior despite knowledge of possible self harm. Once classified as an addict choices can become physiologically affected too. There have been descriptions of the addicted brain being hardwired to pre-accept an opportunity for indulgence in said addiction. Meaning if you were to ask the decision for the drug addict to have another hit may have been affirmatively made before they were able to consciously process or even reply to the question.
An argument for tattooing to be exempt from an addiction classification could be made. Certainly there is no evidence that tattooing poses long term health risks in the same way that nicotine or alcohol abuse does. And in most countries it is a legal activity usually restricted to consenting adults and generally poses no risk of incarceration. However, proceeding with permanent bodily alterations with knowledge of one’s’ inferior selection can be considered a form of self harm.
As classified in the Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMV-IV-TR), self harm is listed as a symptom of borderline personality disorder. Often used as a coping mechanism for deep seeded feelings usually of stress, inadequacy, anger, anxiety or depression. Bad tattoos, if viewed as self harm, are able to meet both the attention getting and anger dissociative behavior symptoms (two commonly attributed motivations of self harm). Far from splurging with an unhealthy meal, having a big night out or treating yourself to any indulgence – tattooing is a permanent marking with little to no chance of alteration. People can lose weight, take medication and even scars can heal. However, the placement of ink on the dermis remaining visible for a lifetime is a single, largely unalterable action. The deliberate selection of a bad tattoo and possible subsequent conscious or unconscious repetition is more akin to a type of body dysmorphia.
To reiterate the previous differentiation bad body art is the potentially harmful, culturally void duplication performed without proprietary or noteworthy technique. The repercussions of selection commonly overlooked due to an often non-temporal misalignment of the actual associated costs and rewards. In other words, the timeline for the tattoos presence is generally inconceivable. Therefore the rewards of immediate gratification are inflated. A reality that is later masked through commitment to the ‘collection’. In a world of options the conscious choice of an inferior tattoo, whether credited to any range of emotions from subculture participation to ease of application, is a form of self harm.
This conclusion might beg the question, why choose to be tattooed? The sophisticated course of action would be the initial selection of a unique piece from a talented artist. Despite the higher initial costs, gratification is delayed for the sake of expertise and distinction. Therefore irrespective of personal preference or changing viewpoints, a good tattoo in and of itself remains artistically valuable. Yet only when consciously deliberated in light of the facts does this choice become yours.
Written By Dr. J Chou / Henry Haegel, published December 7th, 2011
The latest TLC show titled ‘Tattoo School’ has caused global uproar throughout the tattoo community. Students who seem to lack any foundation in art or design are given two weeks to learn how to tattoo. Without question, righteous indignation from genuine tattoo artists ensued. Tattooing is an art form to which many have dedicated decades and still not achieved the levels to which they aspire. This art form is now being sold off like a work-from-home pyramid scheme with all the grace, subtlety and intelligence of a brick to the face. Yet in reviewing the abysmal tattoos completed by students of this ‘school’ one can’t help but draw numerous similarities to the portfolios of many tattooists currently practicing in studios around the world. If an inferior product is widely accepted, why would education of its recreation be so strongly criticized? It is a hard fact that true talent may not be taught or fostered within the aforementioned timeframe. And the primary negative repercussion would be the propagation of bad tattoos and ‘scratchers’ who work out of home or from equally un-hygienic venues. Acceptance that similar works can be produced by untalented hacks would more offend those who operate under delusions of grandeur in regards to the quality of their work or those who have settled for similar works under the delusion of it being art. The TLC ‘Tattoo School’ is truly an appalling creation yet, its very existence raises deep seeded questions of acceptability and standards in tattooing as a practice.
First we face the question of why the TLC ‘Tattoo School’ was even green-lighted. Standard Western mass entertainment can be neatly summarized in two words: ‘reality television’. Highly staged shows with star-struck participants claim to offer viewers some unique stance that is magically one step closer to real life than other productions. From the Jerry Springer Show, to Cops, American Idol and Big Brother demand for reality T.V. has only been on the rise. Speaking from a South East Asian viewpoint the television productions of “Miami” and “LA Ink” did wonders for broad public acceptance of tattooing. Tattoos moved from an underground practice reserved for criminals to, if not a type of collectable, then at least a much more acceptable lifestyle choice. Reality television in this case had a positive influence in challenging outdated perceptions. Yet the two aforementioned tattooing programs featured established artists in studios of some repute. Therefore the quality of tattoo work produced had already been voted as acceptable through basic economics of the studios continued presence. ‘Tattoo School’ is the litmus test of how far the public’s acceptance of any kind of tattoo can be pushed. In a kind of Hegelian dialectic tattoo acceptance was initiated (‘LA Ink’), tattoo standards are now in question (‘Tattoo School’), and the result should be a synthesis of quality and acceptability. In the same insultingly hypocritical vein as Jerry Springer’s closing remarks of “… Take care of yourself and each other”, TLC’s ‘Tattoo School’ is a reflection of the standards we hold each other accountable to. Here the synthesis being initiated with the acknowledgment of the difference between ‘markings classified as tattoos’ on the one side and ‘tattoo art’ on the other.
Could the negative reaction to the ‘Tattoo School’ be considered a form of artistic elitism? Perhaps there were no other possible avenues that the ‘Tattoo School’ participants could have explored? An extremely well known television personality by the name of Bob Ross popularized landscape painting. His half hour program opened with him standing in front of a blank canvas, brush and palette in hand. After some helpful hints and gentle commentary one ended the program faced with a beautiful, albeit sometimes clichéd, nature scene. Art and design do not need to be taken in concentrated doses. In most branches of art there is room for those who dabble in drawing, paint for recreation and take up sculpture in their garage. And the grandest of educations does not guarantee aptitude. Yet tattoo art is the personalized culmination of design, physiology and artistic vision that is evidently not accessible to all. Options of amateur participation should extend only to activities that pose no physical danger to participants. In the same way that one must sit for a drivers’ license – control must be placed on activities that pose serious risks to health and safety if carried out by unqualified individuals. The ‘Tattoo School’ program has fundamentally failed in this respect.
If the ‘Tattoo School’ was produced by a single studio on a shoestring budget then the concept of the school itself as well as the supposed training offered would be dismissed as a joke. Reality shows like Donald Trump’s The Apprentice or The Dragons Den can create an illusion of proximity and therefore ability. The incongruence of perceived versus actual ability coming from long term indoctrination. Simply, value is attributed to that which people deem worthy to record. The camera’s presence helps substantiate most any action recorded, an effect that much of MTV’s Jackass popularity relies on. Therefore participants of these shows have a kind of automatic authority. With viewers, possibly connecting to or empathizing with the participants’ course of logic, then being validated for congruent capabilities. Mr. X is someone worth watching. Mr. X did something I could have done! I am as capable as Mr. X. Psychologically, the chain of logic is massively powerful considering the perceived potential audience of these ‘reality’ shows. If ‘monkey see – monkey do’ works anywhere, it certainly does not pertain to tattooing. The core foundation of TLC’s ‘Tattoo School’ seems based around the convoluted logic that the cameras will somehow provide the authority of action so desperately lacking.
The production of the ‘Tattoo School’ was fundamentally pre-approved through long term public acceptance of sub-standard tattooing. TLC’s ‘Tattoo School’ is simply a culmination of complacency. If the differentiation between inferior work and tattoo art is made clear, then the school itself will be publically rejected as fast as a Nigerian phising scam. Quality standards of tattoo art are appropriately being called into question. Yet instead of berating the symptom, stop the cause. If bad tattoos are truly not acceptable – TLC’s ‘Tattoo School’ won’t be either.
Written By Dr. J Chou / Henry Haegel, published July 21st, 2011
Tattoos: Advice Extremes
Across Asia the popularity of tattooing is growing. In line with the staggered uptake of Western trends, increasingly affluent portions of society have begun participating in a variety of previously exclusive pursuits. According to some survey’s it is estimated that approximately 18% of all Americans now sport some kind of ink with as high as 50% later regretting their choice. China and Hong Kong have a long way to go before matching these statistics – although it may be years not decades before they catch up.
Perhaps tattooing in Asia can take the best from the West without reproducing such high rates of regret? In what is currently a largely ungoverned industry we sought the extreme examples of bad advice and worrying statements being floated. We then asked the experts for their take. Tattoo Temple is the foremost tattoo art and design studio as well as the recognized global leader in multiple tattooing techniques. We were able to sit down with a few of their artists and management to get some of the worst statements they’ve had conveyed to them by clients who had visited other studios. They then followed these with genuine advice for those thinking of getting tattooed. In quotations are the sentences you never want to hear from a tattooist:
“Don’t worry about it not looking good when you’re old because you won’t look good when you’re old anyway!”
By this logic you should eat junk food because you going to put on weight anyway. The anticipation of your body looking bad is the quintessential self-fulfilling prophecy. If you plan on it happening then you will most likely make that vision a reality through a low standard of self care. If you hear a tattooist guiding your decision based on this rationale then you’re dealing with a junk food mentality. Get something quick, cheap and don’t worry about the quality. If you want to be proud of your body art then avoid people who propose this thinking like the plague.
“Japanese or Chinese – it doesn’t make a difference. No one will notice.”
No one will notice; apart from those that know what they’re talking about. Your choice of tattoo art should be a decision that is given the same weight as the effect of the procedure itself. A tattoo is a permanent alteration. If someone doesn’t care about the details of the piece then how can they be expected to care about your skin?
“Portfolio? Why? Everyone knows I’m the best.”
With the exception of a mere handful – how many celebrity tattoos could be considered to be really great? Just because the person has tattooed celebrities or is well known it is no indication of the quality of their work. One must individually judge an artist on their portfolio, their willingness to answer questions about the procedure and their attitude. Mike Tyson is extremely famous but is not considered to be a leading art critic. Trust your own judgment. If you don’t see a portfolio that you’re impressed with – don’t bother.
“I worked a nine to five and got bored with my job so I started tattooing!”
Have people changed careers and become respected tattoo artists? Yes. Does this mean that every ex-office worker or ex-designer has the potential to be a tattoo artist? No. Some of the best artists in the world have worked in a range of fields and professions before tattooing. Eclectic experience can be a huge source of inspiration and expertise. However there is a big difference between someone who followed their passion to become a tattoo artist and someone who just learned to tattoo. Anyone can trace a picture but only a select few can create. The difference is most easily noted in the style of work produced. Tattooists that rely heavily on prefabricated designs or flash sheets are those that can trace. Generally, those producing works unique unto themselves are artists.
“Most of our customers are tourists.”
So you’re saying that locals feel the price isn’t justified, you do quick flash work and those people you do tattoo aren’t around long enough for the piece to even heal? Got it.
“We don’t need an autoclave for sterilization.”
You do. A professional grade autoclave is absolutely required. Unless every single part of the tattoo machine is disposable the artist will need to clean sections of the machine between clients. UV sterilization is so that additional bacteria does not grow. Ultrasonic cleaners are for removing relatively large bits of dirt, cleaning between colors and a few other procedures. But ultrasonic cleaners themselves cannot be said to sterilize the equipment. An autoclave is a very large and reasonably expensive piece of equipment. Not having one can contribute to many tattooists offering you a ‘great deal’.
Through popular culture tattooing has recently been brought into the limelight. Shows like ‘LA Ink’ in conjunction with local Asian celebrities getting tattooed afforded the art a new found respect. From a once underground practice reserved for societies’ fringe elements – tattooing in Asia has today become a much more celebrated pursuit. With a wide choice of fine artists from Mainland China and from studio’s like Tattoo Temple in Hong Kong – let us hope that the Asian tattoo industry doesn’t need to repeat the Western learning curve of what’s considered to be genuine tattoo art.
Tattoo Bias & Economies of Thought
“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
Hong Kong has somewhat of a ‘traditional infamy’ regarding triad tattoos. Due to the economic success and population density of this small fishing village turned metropolis, China’s Special Administrative Region is renowned for criminal tattoos and displays of organized crime affiliation. Public perception and purported fear of these markings is then reinforced by mainstream media, Hollywood included. Far from an insight into gang organization, this portrayal is a fantastic double bluff. The practice also sheds light on how the general public’s judgment of the tattooed is merely an economy of thought – allowing for broad generalizations without the need for subsequent artistic discrimination. Both of these conditions allow for illogical and outdated ‘inked-discrimination’.
The term ‘triad’ is said to have been coined by the British after assuming control of the colony. The name was derived from the traditional Chinese triangle iconography used by the gangs signifying the unity between heaven, earth and man. And even most Hong Kong triad groups still have their roots strongly in Mainland China. Throughout the 19th and 20th century the triads’ presence in Hong Kong grew alongside the territory’s reputation as an international business and shipping hub. Like any industry, the triad groups were separated by area of specialty and geographical location. There are still many active groups throughout both Mainland China and Hong Kong. It was just in 1993 that the notorious 6 acre ‘Walled City’, boasting a population of 33,000 under triad rule, was demolished. Today the number of active members in each of the top groups is estimated to range between 20,000 and 100,000+.
The two most recognizable forms in triad tattoos are the dragon and the phoenix. These generally aggressive images work in tandem within the mythology. The dragon image is held to signify the ‘yang’ or dark side of the ‘yin-yang’ balance. Far from a beast to be feared or hunted as in Western mythology, the Chinese dragon traditionally symbolized good luck, power and control over various elements. Of these traits power is the most common reason behind the acquisition of dragon tattoos. On the other side is the ‘light’ or ‘yin’ element represented by the phoenix. A fire bird consistently reborn from the ashes, the phoenix symbolizes regeneration. And to that extent the phoenix also stands for a kind of power over the mortal coil. Again, the dragon and phoenix are the most recognizable pairing in triad tattoos. The other combination is the dragon and tiger. The reason for this second grouping derives from a variety of cultural sources including particular etymology of local dialects, myths behind famous Chinese leaders as well as the perceived internal struggle between the inclination towards good or bad (with each animal representing a distinct proclivity).
The use of these images and mythology by triad members is not in question. Many triad members will have such tattoos. However, the mistaken belief is that these tattoos are used by the triad organizations themselves. Any broad categorizations of those who wear these tattoos automatically being a triad member of any repute are deeply inaccurate. The subtle differentiation being that those who publically display these tattoos are either a separate class of triad members or simply tattooed individuals.
Generally speaking there are two types of triads. The first is locally referred to as a ‘troublemaker’, the ‘young and dangerous’ type. These ‘troublemakers’ are generally concerned with street squabbles over territory, drugs, petty crime and intimidation. Due to their public profile and propensity for display, this type receives the most attention. The second type is colloquially referred to as the ‘black-band’ society. Much like any major crime organization their ranks are controlled with militarily precision and its members can be professionals from a variety of fields. Throughout the largest groups lawyers, bankers, business owners, politicians and policeman can be included in this second category. There are two rules governing the second type, to never cause trouble and to never be identified as a member. The gang’s income and business structures require the preservation of a status-quo. To upset this through any petty crime, unauthorized intimidation or showboating would be short sighted and absolutely detrimental to operations. The first type has allowed for the current negative stereotyping of the tattooed in Hong Kong. They have a propensity for very large tattoos yet, due to limited financial means, will usually only complete the outline of the piece. The second type, should they have any tattoos, would not display them in the same way. At an organizational level, leaders of various fractions will not allow followers to be tattooed. Such tattoos would draw too much attention whilst allowing for immediate identification. In a business where anonymity and discrete operations are of primary importance it would be wrong to assume that there is some displayed, physical method of membership categorization.
The idea of an economy of thought is simple, it is a mental shortcut. If one was passed by three people on the street and then asked to describe who passed, answers are most commonly economies of thought. A response could be “Two guys and a girl passed by”. Another could be “Two business men and a woman walked by”, and so on. From personal grooming, types of clothing and even their stride; a plethora of readily available information is frequently overlooked. Due to the sheer amount of information we are exposed to on a daily basis it very rarely serves any purpose to go into further detail than this. And in the absence of any extenuating circumstance, for the everyday person much of this information would indeed be useless to retain. One’s more complete attention is devoted to the environmental aspects that are of immediate concern or use. Economies of thought serve multiple purposes and allow for speedy navigation of modern day life. Yet if these economies of thought are taken as inherent truths they form the foundation for most every type of discrimination.
To racially profile, judge, dismiss or otherwise unfairly discriminate is to uphold an ill-formed economy of thought. A striking example of this being the ‘Craniometry’ and ‘Eugenics’ movements most famously employed by the Nazi’s. These supposed ‘sciences’ consisted of taking physical measurements of various body parts. The subsequent ratios between the measured sections were then said to indicate the subjects’ value as a human being. So the length and shape of one’s nose could be used as evidence of intrinsic inferiority or cognitive capacity. Again, an ill-formed economy of thought enables discrimination as investigation or genuine understanding of the facts is rendered unnecessary. This mental process (or lack thereof) with varying levels of complexity and specific cultural pressure applies to all racial profiling, stereotyping and prejudice.
To move out of the somewhat morbidly extreme nature of the previous example, general economies of thought are applied to most every aspect of life. These are internal defense mechanisms that allow for rapid categorization of the information saturated world we are part of. And not to reduce this logic to the Socratic line of continual investigation ending in the admittance we actually know nothing with certainty, mental economies of thought are comparatively topical shortcuts. Much like the snap judgment of someone’s supposed indicated wealth through a subjective calculation of the price of their clothing, the shortcuts in question here are ones that can be reduced or removed entirely with minimal effort.
To see that public displays of dragon and phoenix tattoos do not necessarily indicate a true inclination or connection to organized crime is a novel concept to many. As with any behavior, extreme actions are of course rightfully questionable. Yet tattoo art, in and of itself, can be an art form collected by the most educated and trustworthy people across the globe. To know that there are tattoos and on the other end of the spectrum there is tattoo art will allow for new, slightly more accurate mental economies of thought to develop. To automatically fear, discriminate or dismiss the tattooed would be allowing ill-formed economies of thought to grow and negative stereotypes to propagate. In a world where the rate of tattoo adoption is growing exponentially, we must understand that when properly performed tattoo art can be as varied, complex, beautiful and as detailed as the people who wear it.
As always, huge thanks to Tattoo Temple and the Unique Living Art Organization for their art, inspiration and clarity.
Written By Dr. J Chou / Henry Haegel, published July 18th, 2011
Voluntarily receiving a tattoo, a permanent alteration to physical appearance, can technically be said to be borne from either rational logic or whim (here displays of group membership are also categorized as whim due to their extreme situational dependence). Tattoos can be a well thought out plan or a spur of the moment decision. Yet their subsequent display is not as easily divided. Heavily tattooed men frequently cover their ink with business suits, go into an office and refuse to hire an outwardly tattooed candidate on the grounds of unacceptable physical appearance. Where does this discontinuity of feigned tattoo acceptance, practice and public perception arise? And, why tattoos should not inherently be considered works of art.
Tattoos have just a long and illustrious history as any mainstream or classical type of art. Although this fact is not frequently considered today, far from appreciation, public perception in mainstream Western society often verges on an unenthusiastic civil acceptance of the tattooed. The nature of this dichotomy is characteristically American. The United States has some of the most stringent penalties in the Western world for marijuana use but also the highest consumption. The FCC guarantees that on American public daytime television you won’t be able to see a female nipple but the country’s consumption of hardcore pornography is second to none. Drunk driving is a huge safety issue on American highways. Yet, in a move almost designed to promote binging, the age when one is legally allowed to consume alcohol is still 21 (three years after a citizen can join the military). There exist staggering contradictions between perceived, ‘acceptable’ public opinion and practiced reality.
Tattoo appropriation has become a striking method of display for often deeply personal viewpoints. Yet unlike the easily derisible choice of fashion, body art is not a practical necessity and therefore rightly open to what is at times, severe criticism. When a practice is pushed to the periphery its practitioners necessarily create rifts away from mainstream society through subcultures. Recent years have seen an exponential growth in tattoo adoption. Slowly, tattooing is moving into the light of day. However, there is tattoo art and there are tattoos. The two are vastly different practices with the differentiation often overlooked. Tattoos current reluctant acceptance is the uneducated mass reaction to a practice once relegated to a traditionally infamous subculture (i.e. tattoos and not tattoo art). Broader public approval of tattoo art has been hampered by the inability to differentiate logic from whim. In other words, acceptance of tattooing as a genuine art form has been slowed by the inability to differentiate tattoo art from tattoos.
Tattoos are one of the oldest forms of body art. Traditionally these tribal markings held significant cultural value (tribal is used here in the most traditional sense of the term). Otzi, a recently discovered mummy preserved in ice, bore tattoos that date back some 5,300 years. Egyptian priests and priestesses arranged tattooed dots in what they believed to be mystical abstract geometric patterns across their bodies. Western Europeans have also long adopted the practice. The etymological derivation of ‘Briton’ was regarded by Bentham to be from the Celtic word meaning ‘land of the painted people’. And the art, used for both spiritual and aesthetic purposes, has also been prevalent across Asia for thousands of years. After a period in the West the practice fell into the shadows, not brought into popular consciousness until the Polynesian voyages of Captain Cook. Tattooing then returned to modern Europe as a carnivalesque display. Soon afterwards, in tandem with the invention of the electric tattoo machine, this negative perception of tattoos was strongly reinforced through the appropriation of ink by criminals, sailors and those of ‘low repute’. This subcultures’ tattooing methodology being a type of misappropriation to more strongly juxtapose the tattooed from their ‘clean skinned’ counterparts.
A large part of tattoos modern history consists of tattoo-tracers who use prefabricated flash-tattoos to simply copy designs onto clients’ skin often in rapid succession. Tattoo-tracers enable and propagate negative tattoo stereotypes. And unfortunately, tattoo-tracers have been unwittingly accepted to the point where they now constitute the vast majority of both studios and tattooists. The rate of cover-up tattoos and laser-removals of all tattoos received is estimated to range between 20% and 38% respectively. Although these surveys have been of varying depth and legitimacy still, irrespective of the potential error margins in calculations, the implication of accepted quality and impetuous enthusiasm remains abundantly clear. The best parallel being the right to free speech has no bearing on the veracity, impact or adequacy of words uttered. Opportunity is not reason itself.
Nowadays very few choices are permanent. A staggeringly large percentage of marriages quickly end in divorce. The number of different types of careers held over a lifetime can extend into the double digits. Friends, houses and social affiliations are too easily changed. In a heavily beauty-prejudiced society rational thought would dictate extensive consideration to any permanent alternations to physical appearance when said alterations are neither uniform nor universally accepted. Yet the past few decades has seen exponential growth in flash-tattoo adoption.
A person might have an evenhanded rationale for receiving a tattoo. Yet the public’s uninformed acceptance of flash-tattoos and tattooists necessarily limits the potential range of consideration. Just as there is a link between emotional stability and an eclectic, diverse vocabulary; a person thrives when granted the opportunity to freely express themselves. The first discontinuity of perception and practice regarding tattooing can be seen to arise from the need to express oneself yet doing so with a limited vocabulary.
Conversely, as more and more sections of an individuals’ personal life turn out to be non-permanent the concept of stability itself becomes elusive. In a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, if you anticipate that everything will change then the very nature of any decision is temporary. This extends to the choice of tattoos.
Although the term ‘reality’ is used cautiously, there are undeniably common denominators regarding tattoo acceptance within mainstream society. As initially stated, the common denominators are here termed rational logic or whim. These two categories encompass a broad range of actions and end with fundamentally disconnected results.
A tattoo acquired from whim is by far the most common type. Immediate gratification and or shock value are the two most regular motives. Whim tattoos are generally selected from a book of prefabricated designs and applied by someone who knows how to trace a picture. The overly busy decals used on Ed Hardy accessories perhaps being the most infamous example. Most forms of Chinese character tattoos, tribal designs and lower back tattoos also fall within this category. To determine if a tattoo was acquired on a whim one only needs to answer negatively to the following three questions: 1) Was the tattoo something you wanted and thought about for a long time, perhaps even years? 2) Are you the only person with this tattoo? 3) Can you call the person that applied the tattoo an artist?
The differentiation between tattoo types and motivation is not something to cause or promote discrimination. It is a distinction drawn to present a broader range of possibilities. If artists are held to certain standards of quality then the acceptance of tattoo art will be justified. When it comes to the choice of body art, there is no other area over which one has more direct control.
As always, huge thanks to Tattoo Temple Hong Kong and the Unique Living Art Organization for their art, inspiration and guidance: http://www.tattootemple.hk
Written By Dr. J Chou / Henry Haegel, published June 6th, 2011
A quick historical comparison of keyword search popularity for “tattoo” and “tattoo art” through ‘Google Trends’ yields an interesting result: a direct inverse correlation. Broad searches for tattoos have been steadily increasing with searches for “tattoo art” steadily decreasing. Whilst reality tattoo shows, celebrity tattooist and tattooed celebrities are on the rise, a question of quality lingers. What defines genuine tattoo art as opposed to a tattooed trend? And why this differentiation is of concern.
For tattooing no one style of design can be held to be inherently superior. From Old School sailor tattoos to modern Chinese Watercolor the skill to perform, irrespective of your field and technique, is the underlying factor that necessitates respect. Additionally, personal inclination towards any one style is too beyond reproach. Preference should not be graded. The issue is that quality can be. And with this there are two distinct types of tattoos. The first are prefabricated or minimally altered designs applied by a tattooist. The second are unique commissions individually recognizable as works of art applied by artists. The former is a tattoo. The latter is tattoo art. The three following situations offer a rationale behind the prevalence of the commonly touted tattoo:
1) Digital Socialization: The first days of widespread internet access, personal e-mail accounts and online pornography spawned a phenomenon referred to here as “novel ethical maneuvering”. The constant trumping in obtainable levels of vulgarity, debasement or shocking images through a volley of e-mails became a widespread practice. The humorous Godwin’s Law states that as any online argument escalates in severity the probability of one participant comparing their other to a Nazi approaches 1 (or 100%). The aforementioned phenomenon of ‘novel ethical maneuvering’ is much the same as Godwin’s Law – only without a finite point of potential termination. The ability and method by which to invoke a reaction has no baseline or ceiling. It is not moving towards a probability of 1 but rather simply branching out in alternate, limitless directions. Today social media sites offer an almost global reach at the cost of traditional human interaction. This digital socialization has two distinct repercussions; decreased importance placed on personal conformation to social appearance norms and the ‘novel ethical maneuvering’ of interactions in order to gain or hold attention. Comparatively impersonal interactions allow for a looser set of physical or ‘off-line’ standards. A near incomprehensible range of interaction choices dictate increasingly striking ‘attention grabbing’ tactics. This effect is then amplified through the user’s ability to join online niche groups (such as ‘tattoo enthusiasts’ or ‘lovers of body art’), a set of actions and shared ideologies ordinarily referred to as sub-culture association. These niche groups then reinforce the aforementioned repercussions of digital socialization. Tattoos have been adopted due to the ‘novel ethical maneuvering’ of personal appearance. In short, digital socialization has allowed for many bad tattooists of varying fame and repute to make quick money
2) The Health Food Correlation: Or more specifically, why junk is still in demand. Today most any piece of information known to mankind is readily available. For any individual living in a developed country the excuse that one does not understand the basics of nutrition or the physical results of a fast food diet has no ground. Completely separate from any suicidal tendencies (in which smoking and extreme sports are also classed), the rationale most commonly used for fast food consumption is the preservation of time. Many state that the demands of modern life limit attention once devoted to healthy, home cooked meals. Ironically, a goal of body maintenance through balanced nutrition would be increased productivity. Using the same convoluted logic, junk tattoos have become prevalent. They are easy to apply and the people applying them have no waiting list. As with junk food the end goal is instant obtainment irrespective of any long term, detrimental effects. The stomach is empty and needs to be filled, a simple equation should standards of quality be lacking. A section of skin is empty and needs to be covered, with what and by who is of minimal importance should the standards of quality be lacking. Short term results outweigh the long term negative effects and immediacy takes precedence.
3) Post-Modernly-Scrooged: Post Modernism has been defined as the flattening of culture. The once meaning rich image of Che Guevara is now placed on children’s notebooks. Mobile telephone ringtones have been turned into popular songs and classical concertos into ringtones. Salvidor Dali’s surrealist paintings have been used by countless individuals for their online avatars and the morality kneaded into commercials more often reside in the popular consciousness than does religious scripture (although this last example might actually be considered progress). Since the introduction of the electric tattoo machine and the standard ‘tattoo studio’ the cultural value or potency of tattoo images for many has also been flattened. As such the concept of a discerning tattoo collector is somewhat abstract in the popular zeitgeist. With comparative standardization of the cultural currency of tattoo images their price of application has too become generally homogeneous. The standardized cost and meaning has allowed for somewhat of an unbiased adoption by mainstream Western society. The goal for many is to simply carry ink rather than a form of cultural currency. Instead of commissioning an artist for a unique creation many simply adhere to the mega-store, mass produced economies of scale. If the end user cannot discern between the varying levels of potency then price and speed of attainment trump all other factors. A finger painting from a kindergartener and a Picasso will seem comparable if presented on a level platform to one who does not understand the criteria by which to judge them.
The value of an artist should not only be derived from their portfolio but more importantly, from their attitude towards the creation of the unique. These aforementioned trends and influences, although perhaps initially bleak, no more heralds the end of tattoo art than television meant the end of cinema. The mass consumption of rapid fire images compared to the depth of a true cinematic experience holds. As the television standards of common tattoos have been on the rise there are still those that will always value the depth and artistry found in unique commissions. The mass tattoo consumption is undeniably a trend yet the evidence of this style-du-jour remains indelible. The definition of true art is something that inspires and transcends, demand nothing less from body art.
Special thanks to Tattoo Temple in Hong Kong and the Unique Living Art Organization for their guidance and inspirational creations: www.tattootemple.hk
Written By Dr. J Chou / Henry Haegel, published June 6th, 2011
For an ever increasing percentage of people across the globe a new online library poses a serious question. When considering a 5,000 year old art form, the compilation of popularized drawings would seem to be nothing extraordinary. Every book store and café from Ivy League schools to sea side tourist-traps sell photographs of famous painters, sculptors and modern pop-artists’ works. And from glossy coffee table books to iPhone cases – the world is saturated with these depictions.
Art has become a daily occurrence. Yet appreciation and recognition is something most do without ever having held a brush or picked up a canvas. The ability to choose and change the artworks around us allows for veracious, constant consumption.
This new online library pertains to a practice that is less recognized as an art form but becoming more commonly demanded, requested and viewed than any before: I am of course speaking about tattooing. On an elemental level these permanent markings hold the most private and intense connection of all art forms. Tattoos can serve as expressions of character, history and even as a record of one’s experiences.
Less well known is the fact that tattoos can be divided into two design categories; flash and custom. Tattoo flash refers to a collection of drawings that have most frequently been used by tattooists around the world. These images adorn the walls of numerous studios and fill the portfolio books of many tattooists. People often arrive at tattoo studios, flick through the pages of the flash collection and simply pick out a design to have placed on their bodies. Flash tattooing is a practice comparable to choosing a sticker from an album.
In a practice more akin to patronage, custom designed body art is the second tattoo type. The client’s preferences, design tastes and even lifestyle is considered by the tattoo artist. With this information the tattoo artist is commissioned to create a unique artwork that will then be tattooed.
Tattoo Temple in Hong Kong was the first studio in the region to introduce custom designed body art. Tattoo Temple’s artworks are tailor made and no design is ever repeated. Breaking through the stereotype of the flash tattoo mindset, Tattoo Temple has seen unparalleled success. With clients flying in from around the world the waiting list for some of Tattoo Temple’s artists can be over one year.
The studio is also home to the International Tattoo Academy (ITA). In line with their educational ventures Tattoo Temple has released a free tattoo flash library. Divided into nine sections the flash library consists of over 4,500 images and is available online: http://www.tattootemple.hk/history-of-tattooing
Tattoo Temple commented that they hope the release of this free flash library will “Help people appreciate and understand real tattoo art”. With the resurgence of tattooing, the industry is set for continued expansion. Flicking through books we have been asking ‘What represents me’?
If we look up, the question we could be asking is ‘What am I going to create’?
Written By Dr. J Chou, published March 15th, 2011
Sources of tattoo inspiration are no longer found in the well worn pages of flash designs. Professional from all fields are now commissioning artists to design unique body art. A free Western masterpiece library of around 150,000 images has been released by a tattoo studio, signifying the rise of the art tattoo.
The number of tattooed people world-wide is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions. There is of course no way to accurately count every person wearing ink, surveys of varying sizes and veracity have been conducted across the globe. One indisputable fact remains – tattoos are becoming evidently and markedly popular (pun intended).
It could be said that tattooing is undergoing somewhat of a modern day renaissance. Even 60 years ago the tattoo studio’s primary clientele consisted of sailors, army men and those who have often been categorized as ‘rough individuals’. When speaking with Tattoo Temple in Hong Kong – we discovered that the vast majority of their clientele consists of international business executives, CEO’s and professionals from all fields. Far from a uniting ‘tattooed’ bond joining the once separate socio-economic classes it seems that a new divide is forming: those who wear tattoo art and those with tattoos.
The difference might seem to be a subtle one from outside the industry but examples of work from the two sides are staggeringly different. Standard designs are the most commonly thought of, searched for and sold tattoo images. These are often referred to as ‘tattoo flash’. They are the pictures of cartoon characters, suns, moons, roses, hearts, dragons, flowers and most every discounted drawing you could expect to find in a well stocked sticker album. Much like going shopping for a T-Shirt, flash tattoos are prefabricated designs used again and again. The use of tattoo flash could be readily explained through economic terms as impromptu requests in tandem with the financial means of the tattoo studio’s clientele dictated the need for immediate, speedy application of designs. One caveat being that there does exist a range of shared imagery amongst various, often tribal, cultures where tattoo designs are consistently reused. Tattoo flash here obviously does not refer to this meaningful and artistically rich native or tribal iconography.
The art tattoo finds its inspiration in mutual, often lengthy collaboration. No longer constrained to the stock set of images found in tattoo flash, the art tattoo draws its inspiration from every imaginable source. Clients can approach the artist with either a clear image of their perfect body art or a general idea of what elements or style they would like incorporated. Once the positioning, color and design elements have been discussed – the artist will then take some time to create an entirely unique piece for the client. As in the same way that many will not buy their suit off the rack – the rise of the art tattoo is becoming a lifestyle choice of the discerning.
Tattoo Temple in Hong Kong was the first studio in the region to introduce custom designed body art. Tattoo Temple’s artworks are tailor made and no design is repeated. Breaking through the stereotype of the flash tattoo mindset, Tattoo Temple has seen unparalleled success. The studio is also home to the International Tattoo Academy (ITA). For inspiration from more classical sources Tattoo Temple has released an artist reference library. The library consists of over 150,000 images and features a wide range of Western & Asian masterpieces. It is available online: http://tattootemple.hk/introduction-tattoo-styles
Written By Henry Baeger, published April 1st, 2011
The 5 Tattoo Art Questions You Shouldn’t Ask
After talking with Asia’s largest body art organization we came up with the top 5 questions they hate to hear. It seems as though no matter how educated the clientele, amusing questions are never far away!
Recently there has been a significant amount of attention towards the growing number of people across the globe that are now choosing ‘tattoo art’. Tattoo art has been defined as a unique creation, from a tattoo artist, that was commissioned by the client specifically for single use. On the other side is ‘tattoo flash’, this is where pre-made designs are chosen from a book and simply applied by a tattooist. Tattoo art is the fastest growing type of personally commissioned fine art and its growing popularity has implications for hundreds of millions around the world!
Despite the increasingly discerning choices – some really basic questions still get asked. We talked with Tattoo Temple in Hong Kong and found the top 5 worst questions you could ask when commissioning tattoo art. Tattoo Temple was the first studio in Asia to introduce the art tattoo and is the leading body art organization. Despite their clientele being mostly CEO’s, doctors, lawyers and professionals from a variety of fields – Tattoo Temple is no stranger to the cringe worthy question. In reverse order, here are the top 5:
5: “I couldn’t get a big tattoo… If I get a smaller tattoo it will hurt less – right?!”
It is true that there will be less time under the needle but the per-minute pain of getting a tattoo is a finite unit. There are two factors that affect the pain level; position and the person. Tattoos to different parts of the body will have varying levels of pain associated. For instance, clients getting tattoos on the back of their knees, feet or neck often feel that these areas are more painful than getting a tattoo on a more common place like the back or shoulder. The second factor is a person’s pain threshold. Other than these two, big or small, a tattoo is a tattoo!
4: “If I get a big tattoo will it fade faster?”
Whether tattoos fade or last depends entirely on the skill of the artist that applied it and how you treat the tattoo afterwards. If the tattooist doesn’t know what they’re doing or uses inferior ink then the tattoo won’t be applied correctly. If it wasn’t applied correctly it will consequently fade out. Or, if you are out in the sun every day without proper protection over your tattoo then it can start to fade. Size is irrelevant; it’s who applied it and how you take care of it that makes all the difference.
3: “I’d love to get a color tattoo but all the color ones fade out right?”
Not at all! If you go to the right artist, they use the proper ink and you take care of the tattoo then a color tattoo will last as long as a black one! Tattoos sit on the second layer of skin. This means that your own skin tone will be above the color of the tattoo. Apart from that, the life of the color ink is exactly the same as black ink.
2: “I heard that there is a numbing cream I could use so I don’t have to feel the tattoo?”
Quite simply, anyone that even suggests a pain-free tattoo is possible (while you’re conscious) is lying. The fact is that these kinds of products do not work for tattoos. Tattoos are permanent because they rest on the middle layer of skin. Very simply, the top layer of human skin is constantly shedding, the middle layer is stable, and the base layer connects the blood vessels and nerves. Numbing creams are applied and work on the top layer of skin only. The tattoo sits on the second layer of skin. Lidocaine, the most common active ingredient in numbing creams, only works on a tiny portion of skin and does not cut off all sensation to the area.
1: “I want a tattoo! Could you please design it for me?”
This is the grand winner! We are talking about custom designed art. The artist will need to know what style or styles you would like incorporated, where you’d like the tattoo, how much space you’d like to use, your color and design preferences and a whole range of other details. To say “I want a tattoo! Could you please design it for me?” is the equivalent of asking “I want my dream house! Could you please make it for me?”. Being as specific as possible and having references at the ready will help your artist create your custom artwork. Don’t go in empty handed!
Tattoo Temple followed the interview by saying that no matter what the questions – they’re always happy to answer! Contact details can be found on their websites: http://www.tattootemple.hk
Written By Henry Baeger, published April 11th, 2011
Cosmetic Tattoo Art
For most, getting a tattoo is an exciting extravagance encapsulated in a world of choice. The most difficult question many tattoo seekers are forced to ask themselves is ‘what style do I prefer’? However, for a small percentage of people receiving a tattoo is also a medical, albeit cosmetic, procedure.
We asked Tattoo Temple in Hong Kong for an insight into the other uses of tattoos. Although traditionally more popular in Asian countries such as South Korea, instances of cosmetic tattooing in Hong Kong are on the rise. Cosmetic tattooing is particularly popular amongst women and, although not yet a traditional and culturally mainstream practice here in China, it can be viewed as a burgeoning and empowered choice. Irrespective of one’s personal inclination towards or against such ‘inking’ there are numerous technical and safety issues not often considered.
Cosmetic tattoo art can be broadly divided into three types: permanent makeup, skin coloration and tattooing over scars. Permanent makeup tattoos are when the client requests color pigmentation or even tattooed dots representing beauty marks to be placed on their face or body thus replacing conventional cosmetics. These permanent markings range from tattooed eyebrows, eyeliner, blush to even lip-stick. Thinner highly precise tattoo needles are used for many of the cosmetic tattoo procedures. The second type of cosmetic tattooing is known as ‘skin coloration’. This is performed when, for a variety of reasons including the repercussions of surgery and burns, a small section of a persons’ skin color no longer matches the rest or most of their body. Tattoo Temple told us of one extremely brave client who came in for this procedure. The aspect that separates this client from all the rest was that the area to be re-colored was a portion of his testicles. And yes, he made it through the entire session.
The first two types of cosmetic tattoos require not only a steady hand but also an artist who is a color expert. Most anyone is able to select and match a type of tattoo ink from the many on the shelf however only the experienced artist can anticipate the end result. As a persons’ natural skin color will sit on top of the tattoo and as the tattoo is often intended to be readily visible, the visual mathematics of this practice is best left to only the experienced professional.
According to Tattoo Temple the third type is the most requested form of cosmetic tattooing, tattoos over scars. In most cases there exists the perception that a tattoo piece could be placed over a larger area somehow incorporating the scar into the design and therefore hiding the scar. As a very general and broad rule, this can often be the case. Yet each scar, medical history, healing capability and design has to be individually reviewed by the tattoo artist.
Very simply, scars differ according to the amount of collagen the body produces. Hypertrophic and keloid scars are where excess collagen has been deposited over the area; these are the raised or bumpy’ types of scars. Atrophic scarring is an indentation of the skin. Atrophic scarring is most commonly from acne, chickenpox, accidents or surgery.
Tattoos are permanent because they sit beneath the layer of skin that is constantly sloughing or shedding. Most types of mild scars will be able to retain the color of a tattoo. Scarred areas more often than not form stable canvases (from the tattoo artists viewpoint) however it is still tricky territory when bearing in mind the intricacies and complexity of many tattoo designs. When considering tattooing over a scar the key point to keep in mind is that tattoos are simply changes in coloration whereas scars are physical alterations. No matter the style or type of tattoo design, the skin onto which it is applied will not be physically altered except for the underlying coloration. The raised or indented areas of skin (i.e. the scar) can at best be expertly crafted into the design so as to minimize any untoward attention.
Tattoo Temple in Hong Kong was the first studio in the region to introduce custom designed tattoo art and are the only qualified cosmetic tattoo artists. Their waiting list is approaching the two year mark and it seems as though the demand for cosmetic tattooing is only on the rise.
Written By Dr. J Chou, published May 15th, 2011