Research Proposal: Ars Velius: Exploring the Urban Shamanism of the Ink Bard

And so here, in the eyes of peers and public, I shall stake claim to my semester-long research project.  It’s funny that as I put these words out before me, immortalized as they are in this electronic pool of infinite data storage, they share a theme with the topic that I’ve chosen. My words, my art, are an extension, an expression, of myself placed upon this digitized canvas. Once I click publish, those words fly off into the world for everyone to witness and I am, in that sense, exposing myself to the world. I am expressing myself and I am sharing who I am or choose to be. And this is the power of the tattoo.

Tattooing, once taboo and reserved for the more disparate and rebellious sorts of counterculture riff-raff, is now mainstream. Soccer Moms, kindergarten teachers, grandfathers and doctors are all sitting in the chair to have imprinted upon their flesh some permanent morsel of their life. A 2006 story in USAToday reported that 24% of Americans aged 18 – 50 are tattooed. That was up from 15% three years prior. How large has that number grown in the four years since the story was published?

Tattoos are stories, memories, tributes, passion, songs, declarations. Tattoos are many things to many people, but there is one thread that holds true to every tattoo inked across every pound of flesh: they are ART. They are meant to be shared. They are meant to be experienced and discussed and appreciated. Like cave drawings telling the stories of lost civilizations, tattoos tell our story. They illustrate who we are. Our skin is the cave wall and you, the observer of our ink, are discovering our stories.

As much as tattoos interest me, it is the tattoo artist which fascinates me. To me, they are akin to bards, regaling courts with harp and song. They are shamans, weaving magic through ink and needle. Their skill enables our identities to see thought become reality. How liberating must it be, I think, to serve in such a fashion, free to practice your craft without fear of expressive discrimination. To earn your living giving life to the soul of every person who comes before you, paying for you to ply your trade. How does one begin? How does one enter into this trade? Can any artist transfer ability to this medium, or is it like the potter who cannot paint or the illustrator who knows only cartooning and not realism? Can it be taught? What life is this, the uninhibited and carefree practice of the inkslinger?

So, I propose to explore the tattoo artist  and their craft as urban shamanism, almost a reflection of our move toward neo-tribal associations and identity illumination. The statement of the individual in a world awash in capitalism, consumerism, and mass corporate appeal.

Art is best served by art. It is for this reason, that I will present my research in a medium that I feel I can best immerse myself in. I plan to write a story (or stories, interconnected) that explore the depths of this research topic. Images assault me of dystopian/speculative fiction shorts, or dark fantasy cemented in magical realism. I can have a lot of fun with this and at the center of them all would be a centralized stark image, a tattoo, and, of course, the shaman him/herself: the tattoo artist. What great characters they could be, especially in a fantasy work of fiction.

The best fiction, fantasy included, is grounded in some bit of reality, no matter how big or small that may be. Even the wildest ideas often have roots in reality somewhere, some idea or image that inspired the writer. This is where my research shall prove paramount in giving me the depth to create a piece truly enriched by the discoveries awaiting me. I look forward to immersing myself in the culture and archives on the subject of tattoo artists and their craft.

As this is not merely a practice without purpose, publication is in mind. To this end, I have considered several possible publications which I will target for submission. Chief amongst these (as farmed from Writer’s Market 2011, Duotrope, and/or Google searches) are:

Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, Shimmer Magazine, Dark Valentine, Weird Tales, and Philadelphia Stories.

Most of these were selected because of their attraction to weird, dark, speculative fantasy with flavors of magical realism or the bizarre. Philadelphia Stories is an interest because of their attachment to well written stories by area writers. This is not to say that this list is closed and/or comprehensive, but this is a starting area. These are some magazines that may be interested in what I will eventually write. Other opportunities may present themselves once I am able to research more of the trade magazines that are on the shelves (Inked, Tattoo Magazine, Skin & Ink).

I am also excited at the prospect of exploring the artists themselves, of sitting down to talk with them, of visiting shops and parlors, discussing thoughts via blogs, like Tattoo blog or Swallows & Daggers. Coincidentally, and I just discovered this today, the 2011 Philadelphia Tattoo Arts convention is this weekend (Fri-Sun, $20/day or $40 for all three. Tickets sold at door. See site for details). I’ll be there on Saturday, what a chance to dive right into this thing.

This is an exciting opportunity to explore an area of personal interest and to use it in a genre that I wear like a second skin. Though the immediate research and archive opportunities are local, it is (as demonstrated in the aforementioned USAToday article) a subject of national AND global appeal. I look forward to the challenges ahead and the discoveries that await. Perhaps, at the end of it all, another painting will color my cave wall?

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5 comments on “Research Proposal: Ars Velius: Exploring the Urban Shamanism of the Ink Bard

  1. Hey Joseph! I think this is a great idea. I’ve always thought tattoos were interesting. I don’t have the courage to get one because I have a low pain tolerance and I’m very indecisive. But, I had a friend tell me once that the first tattoo you get is always the most important usually it has sentimental value and after that people just become into tattoos and want more. I’m excited to see where you research will take you!

  2. BW says:

    As I have mentioned, this is an excellent topic. The challenge for you will be to narrow it down to something specific about tattoos or tattoo artists.

    It will also be important for you to be able to complicate the history of tattoos. As mentioned in the reflection on our chat, historically tattoos have had tribal meanings, but they have also been used for branding purposes (think of the numbers tattooed on Jews and others during the Holocaust and those forced on people in prison environments).

    Delve into that complexity rather than shying away from it. It will only lead to a richer research process and final written work.

    Looking forward to seeing what you find out!

  3. josephmcgee says:

    […] the 2011 Philadelphia Tattoo Arts convention while gathering research for a piece focused on tattoos. This field research was, in a sense, a lighter form of ethnographic research. I purchased a […]

  4. […] parallels and connections Proust’s work had to the themes and concepts intended for my own research project. Lucio intended to dissect Proust and his masterpiece, intent on illuminating the author’s […]

  5. […] for the picture, this comes from a blog written by a guy, named Joseph McGee. In his entry, “Research Proposal: Ars Velius: Exploring the Urban Shamanism of the Ink Bard,” he included the picture you see in this entry. Since it seemed to just incapsulate […]

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