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Is tattooing an art?
Artstyle 04 Aug 2015

Is tattooing an art?

At a time when « alternative » artistic practices are multiplying, we are in a constant reevaluation of what can labeled art or not: is graphic novel an art? And what about illustration? No wonder that the question is raised regarding an obviously borderline practice like tattooing, and all the more that institutions such as the Quai Branly museum in Paris dedicated an entire exhibition this year to the history of tattooing, from its origins to nowadays’ state of the art.  


Tattooing dates back to ancient times and has remained a social stigma for centuries. On one hand, it has been associated for a while with the prison world, and therefore the outcasts of society: under the Roman Empire, slaves and criminals were tattooed. In Russian and American prisons, men would use tattoos as a mean of communication, to claim an identity or show a status. Exhibition of status is also at the root of the tattoo culture and practice in Asia and the Pacific Islands like Japan, Polynesia or New Zealand where tattoos are a sign of clan affiliation. In all cases, for most of its history, tattooing used a complex system of symbols and its purpose was to deliver a message on the identity of the person who bore it.

Today, tatoos are a mainstream trend and has gone beyond an underground culture dominated by men. As it became increasingly accepted in society, it also began to lose its subversive power. Now reactions of surprise or shock have been replaced by a critical evaluation of the work, while tattoos are less about sending a message than they are now about pure aestheticism.

What contributes to blurring the limits between « artistic craftsmanship » and Art with a capital letter ?



Performance, Yves Klein

As a start, the fact that today, contemporary art uses all kinds of media and the 20th century has turned bodies into one of them: action painting has led the way by incorporating body prints in the creative process. Then, the body art movement, initiated in the USA of the 70’s has confirmed this tendency.  Body art artists, such as Orlan for example, use bodies as the primary medium in performances where they often challenge physical limits.


wim delwoye-tim

Tim, Tattooed skin, Wim Delvoye, 2010, MONA, Hobart (AUS)

It is all the more difficult to preserve a clean cut between a noble art –that which can be shown in galleries- and a secondary one, only worthy of doubtful tattoo shops, when internationally renowned artists accentuate the blurriness of the situation.That is the case of the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye and his multiple works staging “Tattoo Tim”. Tim Steiner in a Swiss man who happens to have a large back tattoo representing a Mexican skull and a Madonna leaning over a bed of red roses and Japanese fish. In 2008, Tim was “bought” by a German collector named Rik Reinking for 150,000 €. According to their contract, Tim has to put his tattoo, and therefore himself, at the owner’s disposal 3 times a year; and when he dies, the collector will be allowed to have Tim’s back skin scalped in order to get his work. We can also refer to the performance of the Spanish artist Santiago Sierra who tattood a simple line on the back of four drug addict prostitutes that he paid the amount of a line of cocaine; or even, to the American artist Shelley Jackson and her project entitled “Skin”, for which she made a call for volunteers from all over the world. If chosen, the volunteers would agree to have a word of a story tattooed on their skin, a story that nobody would know in its entirety aside from the participants to the project.



Santiago sierra, 160 Cm Tattooed on 4 People, 2000

Besides/additionally, the imagery of tattoos has developed following the major trends in contemporary art: symbolic and mostly figurative at first, tattoos have become abstract, expressionist, even graphic. Today tattoos are seen for their aesthetic value and there is only to look at the recent state of the art to realize that what we sometimes see on people’s skin could very well be on a canvas. But here, bodies are the living medium of the work.

Technique wise, one of the latest trends of the field is watercolour tattoos. Its characteristics are the use of very bright hues of colors with fluids shading effects that look just as if the artist had picked up his paintbrushes and go with the flow.

klaim-01 Klaim

Is tattooing an art then? Even though there are still plenty of kitschy Latin quotes around, the upcoming tattooing scene is filled with “real” artists. After all, if street artists claim city walls for their art, tattoo artists can call themselves “artists of the skin”. Is there more a beautiful medium?