Following the Ink Drops…

Art by Greg Simkins

In the course of conducting research for this semester’s Research Methods for Writers class, I have been assaulted with ideas. The topic of tattoos and tattoo artists, is entirely too broad and so I had to choose an avenue that narrowed the field a bit.

I intend to write my final piece as a genre short story. The way my research is going, it may wind up as magical-realism, or some sort of dark urban fantasy. Anybody who knows me would not expect anything else, lol…

Though my research is really just beginning to get under way, some beacons have risen to provide guiding points of light in the dark sea of possibility. I’ve noted these as developing themes and plan to follow their lead in pursuit of my research. Let’s explore them…

The first is this concept of a hierarchy. There seems to me, to be a caste system in place where tattoo artists of various “position” are afforded certain rights, privileges and attention, befitting their “station”.  This is not to say that any one artist who has been relegated to a lower tier on the ink ladder is not capable (or deserving) of producing at the level of the Kings and Queens of the court. This is just how the system has situated itself. Why? How does this happen? Talent is obviously a key contributing factor, but to what ends are other factors such as media coverage, contacts, location, and luck? This hierarchical concept made itself evident to me while attending the 2011 Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention. The VIP artists had a room completely to themselves, with work areas easily six times that of the “lower nobility”. In fact, they were on their own floor, separate from the masses of other artists who had crowded into narrow stalls on the upper floor. There are local Kings, such as Philadelphia Eddie, who stand on a tier above their fellow artists, put there by time, tradition, respect, insight and talent. But even the Philadelphia Eddie’s must walk in the shadows of Emperors and Empresses like Chris Garver or Kat Von D.

Another observation in the vein of hierarchy, is that of the courts themselves. Drawing a comparison to medieval culture and fantasy fiction, there is a distinct parallel to the idea of “noble courts”. Indeed, each artist or group of artists seemed to have its own retinue, its own group of knights and maidens and hangers-on. There are squires as well, apprentices learning the art of the ink gun under the tutelage of a proven tattoo artist. State laws vary in the necessary period of apprenticeship, but I believe the average amount to be 2000 hours. During this period, apprentices spend a great deal of time drawing, learning and aiding the tattoo artists themselves. The ability to create the desired images on paper, to breathe life into thought (and to do it well) is the foundation of moving to skin.

Secondly, I want to explore a reference I heard in relation to the tattoo industry. I have mentioned in a previous post that the tattoo industry is the sixth fastest growing retail industry in the states. I also read a comment that referred to it as a “cut-throat business” What does that mean? What about camaraderie? This establishes conflict, and to write a story about this, conflict is necessary. This is an area worth exploring.

Third, is the belief or attachment of power to tattoos. Historically, tattoos have been used to promote fertility, immortality, or protection. The Egyptians and Maori tribes leap to mind immediately. There has been an inherent mysticism attached to tattoos, a magical association that lends itself perfectly to the genre I wish to write in. I am currently reading about the history of tattoos, in which a significant part of the book is devoted to this tenet. I am also intrigued by the notion of the connection the artists themselves forge with the piece they are doing. Again, I mention Kat Von D. I just bought her new book, “The Tattoo Chronicles” in which she records her personal level of connection to individual tattoos she has done. Kat claims to only do work that she feels significantly important to the customer and that she connects with on some level. I found this artist to recipient “thread” to be significant and attaching weight to the ink transfer.

Finally, as the creative cogs began to grind, an idea formed that I felt compelled to jot down.

From the notes of Joseph P. McGee

The pieces are still falling into place, like dandelion spores exploding across a field of windswept grass. I like the idea of warring gangs/courts/tribes of tattoo artists. Inkslingers? Ink Shamans? I like the idea of power infused in the art at the cost of a piece of the soul? These are all areas to be explored and, of course, more research is necessary.

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