If You Build It, They Will Ink: Tearing down the walls of tattoo “tradition”

There is a movement happening in America that you may not even be aware of. You see the signs around you, inked across the skin of soccer mom and goth girl alike. The bank teller hands you your change and your eyes flit across the colorful chain of flowers tattooed around her wrist. Your neighbor mows the lawn, tank top proudly worn to expose the guns and the tribal swirl covering his shoulder. Professional athletes, covered in tattoos, are idolized and celebrated. Tattoos are no longer “confined to sailors and street hoodlums” (Levins). Celebrities, what we embrace as near royalty in modern society, show us, through their own ink, that tattoos are no longer for the shadows.

Actor Johnny Depp Photo Credit: Tattoo Retro

In fact, the tattoo industry (as of recent reports) is the sixth-fastest growing retail industry in the United States. Within 10 miles of my house alone, there are 20 tattoo studios. These are not back alley parlors where designs are chosen from boards on the wall and customers are herded through on skin canvas production lines. These are warm, sterile, creative places where tattoos are done mostly by “appointment only”. These are places like Mystic Eye Tattoo, DNA Tattooing or Patrick Tattoo, where every attempt is made to cater to a growing middle-class of tattoo customers. What is the fastest growing demographic of the newly tattoo initiated? Middle-class suburban moms.

The Macmillan Encyclopedia of Religion explains “tattoo marks are clearly symbolic… Tattooing in preindustrial societies dominantly relates the tattooed person to a social group or totemic clan, age or sex category, secret society or warrior association… As societies grow more complex and the division of economic and social labor becomes more refined, tattooing becomes more a matter of individual choice and serves the purpose of self-expression… As the technology of the art develops (for example, the invention of the electric tattooing needle), so do the designs and colors multiply, allowing considerable scope for self-expression and making statements about the self… Contemporary tattooed men and women wear on their bodies subtle and beautiful expressions of a continuous tradition that links deity, nature and humankind.” (The Encyclopedia of Religion (16 volumes) Macmillan Publishing, New York, Mircea Eliade, editor, 1987, vol. 2, p. 270).

Tattooing, an art dating back at least 4,000 years (“Tattoo Renaissance,” Time magazine, Dec. 21, 1970, p. 58) is now recognized as a fine art. As John Berendt wrote in Esquire magazine:

“Serious artists…are joining the ranks of tattooers and their designs are being exhibited in museums and featured in expensive coffee table books; fine-art tattooers are, furthermore, leading an effort to improve the image of tattooing….Fine art tattoos…appeal to an affluent, well-educated clientele…The new-style tattooee doesn’t merely pick out a design from the tattooer’s wall; he has an image in mind when he arrives at the studio and then discusses it with the tattooer, much as an art patron commissions a work of art.” (“That Tattoo,” by John Berendt, Esquire magazine, Aug. 1989, p. 32. Thanks to Hoag Levins for supplying the reference).

Tattoo artists themselves, from the celebrated stars of LA Ink (TLC), led by the incredibly talented Kat Von D

Kat Von D

of High Voltage Tattoo and Miami Ink (TLC show), led by the legendary Chris Garver to the local ink scribes of South Jersey, are now recognized as professionals with highly regarded skills.

Chris Garver

When Patrick Levin wanted to open his tattoo business in Camden County, New Jersey, in 1998, he became the first person to be registered under New Jersey’s new tattoo regulations, recognizing him as a “professional” and acknowleding his trade as an “art“.

Patrick Levin

But the highly regarded and much sought after talents of these ink masters are not merely contained to local proximity. People are waiting on appointment lists and traveling out of state to seek work from artists who they feel best represent their identity, their soul. Brandee Gordon, owner of Native Ink Tattoo in Elwood, IN, recently told me that she often has customers fly in to get work done from her. She has also traveled to them, going as far as London to tattoo clients. This is art, appreciated, celebrated, even venerated.

There is a renaissance blossoming of identity and individual celebration. Fine art walks amongst us, gracing the skin canvases of friends, neighbors, co-workers and strangers. There is a desire to share ourselves with the world, from the outside in. People are no longer content to hide behind the walls of their flesh. We are, in a sense, tearing down the walls and the skilled artists of the tattoo industry are helping to lead the charge.

“Your body is a temple, but how long can you live in the same house before you redecorate?”

Brandee Gordon of Native Ink Tattoo

Sound the Tweets of War! The Power of Social Media.

A dense fog hugs the black waters, masking the longship as it slips through the channel. Bay water slaps the prow, churned by the two dozens oars that drive the ship toward the shore. Erik Headsplitter stands at the front of the ship, peering into the shroud. Somewhere ahead, nestled on the rocky shoreline like a surf swept pile of driftwood, sits the village he has come to take. Surprise is essential. The other half of their force will be waiting now, hidden in the thick of the woods above town, for Erik’s signal. The distant fires of the village appear. They grow larger with each succession from the oarsmen. Now, he thinks. Erik turns to the scarred faced boy beside him, his nephew, barely old enough for his winter beard.

“Send the signal,” he says. The boy stands ready, face awash in the glowing blue light of his Iphone. “Sound the Tweets of War!”

We live in an amazing era. An era of instant information and networking. The wonder of the World Wide Web has given way to the wonder of social networking, and a truly instantaneous and global community. New ways to establish a “webdentity” appear faster than we can implement them. Net identity is built atop platforms linked and stacked atop each other like digital dominoes.  Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, Twitpic, Web pages, Blogs, Instant Messaging, texts, Google Buzz….these are the examples that leap to my mind initially. It is staggering to consider the complexity of networking that is happening, as we speak. As writers, this is an invaluable tool for us. This is Thor’s hammer, cast down out of Asgard…if we use it properly (more on that later).

This age of social networking offers writers incredible methods of researching that, in the past, would either be unavailable, unknown, or at the expense of time and money not necessarily available. We, as writers, are able to discover new information and establish contact with people half a world away that may provide expertise on our area of research. Contacts breed contacts and within a few days, a few hours even, an entire platform can be built with which to construct your research. As is the case with any research we do, caution is offered to discern the validity and credibility of any information gleaned.

Recently, I posted the proposal for my grad research project (Ars Velius:Exploring the Urban Shamanism of the Ink Bard). After posting, I “tweeted” a link to it, adding hash tags for tattoos, ink and art. Within a half an hour, I received a notice that Chris Garver, of the TLC reality show “Miami Ink” was following me on Twitter. Chris is an incredible professional tattoo artist. An hour later, my tweet was “retweeted” by another Twitter citizen (a Twitizen??) who had thousands of followers, all interested in the tattoo industry and craft. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to have other tattoo artists sign on to follow my tweets, to include Chris Nunez, also of Miami Ink, and other tattoo affiliated sites. The ability to connect with experts in the field of research I am currently conducting is obviously invaluable.

Chris Garver Tattoo Video in Tokyo from Billy DeCola on Vimeo.

However, the blade that we wield is able to cut us as well. Social media/networking can easily become a distraction. With the responsibility to update blogs, maintain websites, post clever status updates, and send out informative tweets, our writing time is diminished. These are all things that need to be done, but at what cost? Mobile ability makes this a little easier (i.e Iphones, Blackberrys, Androids and Ipads, etc)…but still, these little media beasts aren’t content to have some of our time. They want all of our time. As writers we need to, well..um…write. It’s all too easy to sit down to that fresh page, ready to strike the keys and then become overwhelmed with the urge to check your Facebook page. Or maybe, check your Twitter feed…and, oh yeah, there’s that link you want to put on your web page, but wait…did you read so-and-so’s blog yesterday. No? Hmm…well, we’ll just have a quick read. Then you get a text. Then a Facebook message, then a reply on your blog, then six emails…then you turn around, hours later, and you haven’t produced a damned thing on the page. This is the danger.

The easiest solution, I think, is to “turn off” the distractions when you sit down to write. Dedicate this time. Put your phone on silent and out of sight. Do not log in to Facebook, etc. Make this time solely for your writing and schedule other time for “maintenance” (like your website, blog, etc). Checking and interacting with these sites on the go (mobile devices) helps to keep you current. To borrow from Spiderman here, “With great social networking, comes great responsibility.”

Use these treasures wisely and you will be afforded opportunities normally not open to you. Be professional, be creative, and be involved. The world is literally at our fingertips.

And somewhere, The Police are writing a revision to their song: “Re-Tweet in a bottle….I’m sending an SMS to the world, I’m sending an SMS to the world…”