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.

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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?