Sublimation of the Tattoo
Twenty-two years ago whilst completing my Foundation course, I was embarking on an introductory project set by the University I was to attend that September on the subject of appropriation. My subject of choice was graffiti art. In those days Banksy was still a twinkle in the art world’s eye, no one had any time for my ruminations on the subject of reclaiming public spaces and I was advised to change tack and focus on ‘high art’. I didn’t take that advice.
The subsuming of graffiti or ‘urban art’ into the culture of ‘high art’ is a difficult narrative, with many class related issues and contradictions. The innate elitism within the ‘high art’ arena and its current/continued absence from real political discourse makes for an uncomfortable objectification of the lower classes.
In recent years Tattoo art has been ‘graciously’ elevated by the art mob to ‘near fine art status’, although with far less furore. (Perhaps, because this cultural appropriation has taken place already, in very recent years.)
A 2013 article from The New York Times By Emily Randall gleefully exclaims:
‘Until recently, the integration of tattoos into the art world was mostly confined to performance art’.
For the introduction in a 2011 edition of Garage Magazine for instance, editor Dasha Zhukova commissioned artists including Jeff Koons, Dinos Chapman and Richard Prince to design tattoos. One version showed part of a nude model whose private parts were covered by a green butterfly sticker created by the British artist Damien Hurst. Removing the sticker uncovered a butterfly tattoo, also designed by Mr. Hirst.
It occurs to me that the last two decades of relentless peddling of the relational aesthetic, which seems to finally be on its last legs, with its failed attempts at social and societal relevance, (inevitably doomed to fail when situated in a neo-liberal, elitist and individualist arena such as the art world), has failed not only to understand that its aspirations are unnecessary, but that its attempts to stake a claim on its invention are beyond patronizing. These qualities have been present in ‘low art’ practices for millennia.
I recently visited the ‘Monkey Paw’ tattoo studio and spoke to Michelle Taylor on the subject of subsumation. Michelle was the local tattoo artist used by Jake and Dinos Chapman for their tattoo parlor at the Jerwood in 2014, as part of their exhibition The Realm of the Unmentionable. It was so refreshing to see that she was, aside from being excited about being involved in the project, unscathed in her focus on her own practice. It seems that although the world of art is enamored with itself for its ‘bravery’, the tattoo art world is quite happily getting on with things without needing their approval. Michelle is, in my mind, a bit of a hero in her success at setting up an independent and inclusive practice. She spoke to me of how her first visits to tattoo parlors were difficult in terms of the masculinity of the spaces (something a female fine artist can identify with) and the sense that she didn’t belong there. She talked about women getting ridiculed and being subject to very sexist attitudes which, she explained to me, are now becoming less prominent.
Walking into the studio she built I feel an immediate sense of calm and belonging and joke that I’d like to live in a space like this. She works hard to create a safe and comfortable environment. She has about a 50/50 male to female ratio of clients (which she explains is a higher number of female clientele than most tattoo parlors) and she also serves the LGBT community. The space that she has created is a welcoming workspace and mainly only takes booking rather than walk-ins so that she can be sure that her clients are comfortable. This ‘other’ world is a real space, with relevance to those who utilize it, and Michelle is an inspiration.