The Art of the Tattoo
What began as aboriginal symbolism has become stylish ornamentation. Once considered marginal and transgressive, tattoos are now a fashion statement for all ages, a multimillion-dollar business as permanent as the drawing on your skin.
Text: Anna Veciana @annaveciana & Joan Royo @joanroyogual
With 57 designs covering his body, Ötzi resembles a young Brooklyn hipster on his way to Central Park with a skateboard under his arm. His symbol-laden body would go unnoticed in the vortex of the Big Apple were it not for one small detail: Ötzi is a mummy dating back more than 5,000 years.
Discovered in 1991 on a glacier in the Alps, Ötzi enjoys a remarkable state of preservation, and he’s perhaps the best testament to tattoos being as old as humanity itself, part of many civilizations.
Dramatic body adornment is often seen as a complement to urban art forms like graffiti, skateboarding, and parkour, but tattoos are now popular around the world with everyone from chic celebrities to the general public. But the trend of coloring the skin with ink has a millennia-long history.
Determining the best tattoo artist on the planet is no easy task. It’s a little like wine: everyone has a favorite.
There are luminaries like Bob Tyrrell, Zulueta, Leu, and Paul Booth, but there’s one man who commands universal respect. Scott Campbell grew up in a small town in Louisiana and later studied biochemistry in Texas, but he left it all behind for his love of inking.
Following a stint in California, he moved to New York ten years ago, where he founded Saved Tattoo in the then-emerging Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn. It seems like half of Hollywood has come to him for body art, including Orlando Bloom, Josh Hartnett, Penélope Cruz and the late Heath Ledger.
Scott’s work is displayed in some of the best art galleries in the world, and he charges upwards of a thousand dollars an hour. But even if you can afford it, you may have to wait as long as two years to take a seat in his chair.
Scott Campbell Studio, 426 Union Square, Brooklyn, Nueva York.
The Polynesian Tatau
This art form, a true obsession for many, has evolved over time. In ancient Egypt, painted skin was associated with magical rituals and the supernatural.
British general James Cook must have been dazzled at his first contact with the indigenous peoples of Tahiti and Samoa and their ink-covered bodies in 1791. The traditional method of body adornment consisted of dyeing the skin twice in a practice known as tatau, translated by the clearly impressed foreign sailors as tatouage or tattoo.
As a result, the Polynesian islands are traditionally credited with the introduction of the tattoo into Western culture. In fact, many of the English sailors accompanying Cook came home with ink of their own, feeding a trend that hundreds of years later would break into the mainstream.
This art form wasn’t always so popular. Its bad reputation began in ancient Greece and Rome, where slaves and criminals were marked for life. These marks were known in Latin as stigmata, a mark that stayed with you for the rest of your days.
In the time of the gladiators, it was a stain that you would carry with you until death, a form of marginalization finally prohibited by the first Christian emperor, Constantine, at the end of the Roman Empire. Centuries later, in 1868, under the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese emperor also decided to ban tattoos, ignoring his country’s rich tradition spanning millennia. The Land of the Rising Sun was opening up to the rest of the world and wanted to avoid projecting a surface image of barbarism.
The tradition survived and thrived among an underclass of criminals and prostitutes. And tattooed freaks always accompanied bearded ladies and sword swallowers at traveling circuses.
Strangely enough, the unusual path out of the shadows began with none other than the inventor of the light bulb: Thomas Edison. This U.S. inventor was credited with the 1877 invention of the first tattoo gun, although what he actually built was an electric pen meant to be a duplicating device. It wasn’t until 15 years later that Samuel O’Reilly had the ingenious idea of adding ink to the machine that vibrated 3,000 times per minute and using it to tattoo skin.
Today, the passion for tattoos continues to grow, inspired in large part by a renewed enthusiasm among celebrities. Soccer stars like David Beckham, Neymar, and Lionel Messi constantly add new designs to their bodies, as do pop stars like Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Justin Bieber.
Every time one of these global icons decides to add another tattoo to their corporal collection, the number of people in search of a similar design multiplies, a trend that generates no end of controversy among tattoo artists. The purists lament the frivolity with which new generations approach an ancestral art loaded with the potential for symbolism and meaning. Yet it’s also true that influences as dissimilar as those of the Japanese yakuza and the Maori of New Zealand have contributed to making the discipline profoundly more sophisticated as the skin becomes another sort of canvas.
And the phenomenon shows no signs of slowing. In the United States alone, the industry generates an estimated US$1.6 billion a year; 14 percent of the country’s population sport at least one design and 40 percent of those between the ages of 26 and 40 wear ink. In Spain, 29 percent of the population between 19 and 29 have tattoos.
“Young people feel pressured to fulfill roles that are imposed upon them (by school, by parents, by precarious employment), so turning to tattoos offers a way of preserving some kind of originality,” he explains.
A Dialogue of Civilizations
In addition to being the focus of sociological, anthropological and historical study, these ink-based designs are gradually infiltrating the art world. A recently milestone, for instance, was the exhibition with more than 300 pieces, ranging from needles to preserved skin, in Paris’s Musée du Quai Branly. And just a few months ago, the prestigious GAM cultural center in Santiago, Chile, hosted an exhibition on the art and tattoos of the Maori culture.
“Tattoos are an art and an incredible form of dialogue among cultures,” said Quai Branly director Stéphane Martin at the opening. Beneath his elegant French executive look, complete with suit and tie, Martin sports several tattoos of his own.
People’s relationships with their tattoos are very personal and intimate. Some methodically hide their ink under their work attire, while others choose a spot only accessible to lovers. Many others, however, are happy to exhibit their body art.
One extreme case is Lucky Diamond Rich. This New Zealander made history as the most tattooed man in the world. His prowess has been recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records since 2006. There’s not an inch on his body that’s not covered in ink, including his eyelids, the insides of his ears, between his toes, and even on his gums.
This tattooed man’s existence is a declaration of principles. They are inky examples of the many languages, shapes, and possibilities offered by the human body. in