Tattoos as Wearable Art: The Human Body as a Living Art Gallery

Share Button
Tattoos on arms and chest

Arm and chest tattoos as photographed on extensively-inked interviewee, Martin. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Who has tattoos and why? What is their cultural significance?

Tattoos are an art form in their own right, dating back thousands of years. Apart from the introduction of electric tattoo equipment in 1891, the process has not changed a great deal over the years.

Who Has Tattoos and Why?

Body art might be a symbol of rebellion in today’s culture. Your parents say don’t do it. So what do you do? You get a tattoo!

Tattoos are not new and evidence shows they were common in ancient times. According to Burkhard Riemschneider and Henk Schiffmacher in 1000 Tattoos, Russian tsars and tsarinas, the Emperor Wilhelm II and Lady Randolph Churchill all had tattoos.

Our modern-day icons David Beckham and Angelina Jolie have some amazing ink art and are part of a growing trend which has gained momentum since the 1990s. Skilled tattoo artists are never short of clients.

Some people decorate their bodies to make money showing the artwork. A circus artist in the USA, going by the title ‘Enigma’, had his entire body covered with a puzzle pattern. Famous tattooed women include Le Belle Irene, Betty Broadbent, Cindy Ray and Anni van den Burg, who had identical tattoos to her husband.

For the Maoris of New Zealand, tattoos – known as moko – are about beauty, and a sense of identity. According to Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, writing in BBC News Magazine, when Te Arikinui Dame te Atairangikaahu, known as the Maori Queen, died in 2006, many of her kinswomen chose to remember her with a traditional facial tattoo.

Tattoos evoke a variety of responses from interest to revulsion, from surprise to fascination, but these works of art exist only as long as the bearer lives.

What Does Your Body Art Mean to You?

Your artwork might record a birth, a friendship, a marriage, or a death. It might tell your family history. Some primitive communities wore tattoos to show kinship, encourage fertility or protect against illness. For example, sailors often have a pig on one foot and a rooster on the other to protect against drowning.

Why Are Tattoos So Popular?

In trying to understand why tattoos are so popular I interviewed a friend. For the purposes of this article, let’s call him Martin. Martin’s body bears plenty of beautiful, and often surprising, inked-on art.

Decoded Arts: When did you get your first tattoo?

Martin: I got the Grim Reaper in 1997 when I was twenty years old. It was done off the wall. I chose it from a picture in the studio. There was someone at work who had been in the navy and had tattoos. I wasn’t particularly interested in them, but he talked me into it.

Decoded Arts: How many tattoos have you got now? Can you actually count them or is it just one body of work?

Martin: I can’t actually count them, but I’ve got both arms, chest, back, and legs above and below the knee but not the shin – they tend not to heal up too well.

Decoded Arts: Does it hurt?

Martin: Yes, at first, it did. I think I was so nervous that the nervousness hurt more than the actual pain. Some places on the body are just very, very painful.

Decoded Arts: What response did you get from friends and family?

Martin: My family hated it! They said ‘you’ll regret that when you’re older.’ Friends just go along with what you do, but family, they’re always going to criticize. They always do.

Decoded Arts: So tell me more about the art on your back, does it have special meaning for you?

Tattoos on Back

Tattoos on Martin’s back show examples of personalized art and the vibrancy of images on skin. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Martin: Yes, it relates to my childhood and it’s based on a photo my dad took in 1986. It shows a ferris wheel, called the ‘Rock-o-Plane,’ in a fairground, with hands coming from the sky. There are skulls and a haunted house and a helter-skelter. We nicknamed the ride the eggs, or the eggies, after the egg-shaped cages. Once, when I was on it, the door flew open and I nearly fell out, and I think of those hands as saving me from death.

Decoded Arts: Are you planning more tattoos?

Martin: Yes, I want to get something on my stomach that means something to me, something relating to Iron Maiden, the band. I’m a drummer and I’ve been in bands, metal bands and punk bands. The eighties were where I grew up, so if I get a tattoo on my stomach it’s got to show the 1980s.

Decoded Art: Do they fade after a while?

Martin: Yes, they do. I’ve had a few touch-ups and re-works because I haven’t been happy with a piece.

Decoded Arts: What happens if you want tattoos moved or even completely removed.

Martin: Technology is always improving. Laser removal is expensive and hurts as much as a tattoo. It doesn’t always work. Black ink usually comes off, but red is an awkward colour. It doesn’t heal up well and can take weeks, or even months, to move. I had a red one removed, it didn’t totally go, it faded and left a scar.

Decoded Arts: What advice would you give someone choosing their first tattoo?

Martin: Don’t get anything off the wall. Don’t do it for a dare, and think carefully about what you want. A tattoo is for life… it’s part of you, it makes you different from everyone else in every respect.

An Artist’s Perspective

Adam Guyot, an American tattoo artist, spoke exclusively to Decoded Arts to give the artist’s perspective on the topic of tattoos.

Decoded Arts: How long have you been a tattoo artist, and do you have a favourite style?

Adam Guyot: I have been tattooing for 23 years and I enjoy tattooing all styles from photo realism to traditional Americana.

Decoded Arts: Why do people have tattoos?

Tattoo by Adam Guyot

This tattoo, created by artist Adam Guyot, is in a photo-realism style. Copyright image courtesy of Adam Guyot Eternal Art, used with permission. All rights reserved.

Adam Guyot: People get tattooed for all sorts of reasons. Some to memorialise people or events and some just because it’s cool.

Decoded Arts: What sort of equipment do you use? Is it all electric or do you tattoo by hand?

Adam Guyot: I use both magnetic coil tattoo machines as well as rotary machines. I have had some small hand-pushed tattoos but I don’t attempt to do them.

Decoded Arts: What is the ink made from?

Adam Guyot: There are many ink companies to choose from these days but they are mostly all similar ingredients with a few proprietary differences from brand to brand. Most inks contain pure pigment and disperse it in a liquid made of water, alcohol, and glycerine.

Decoded Arts: What advice would you give someone choosing their first tattoo – For example, how to choose their art and how to care for the ink work while it is healing?

Adam Guyot: Think about what you want. Do not be afraid of picking something off the wall. Tattoo flash designs in most tattoo shops are there because they are good ideas of solid tattoos that will look good for a lifetime. For some reason people are so quick to discount the flash designs because they want something original, but then they show you a Google search image on their phone that a million other people have tattooed on them.

Decoded Arts: What about custom designs?

Adam Guyot: If a custom piece is something you want, find an artist that does the style of tattooing that you are attracted to and have them design a piece for you. As a working Tattooer for over two decades, I am continually frustrated by people bringing art designed by someone who doesn’t understand tattooing. A lot of great art will not make a good tattoo. A good Tattooer will put a piece together so it is laid out correctly for the placement on the body and incorporates the proper fundamentals to make a tattoo that will look good for years and years.

Decoded Arts: Do tattoos fade and can anything be done to preserve the vibrancy of the colours?

Adam Guyot: The second the ink is introduced to your skin, the body begins attacking it. You immune system is constantly trying to break down the foreign pigment and filter it away. Combine that with uv damage from the sun and a tattoo can fade quite a bit over time. Sunblock and regular moisturising helps to maintain the colour, but as we all age day by day, our tattoos do too.

Tattoo Humorous Cartoon Character

This tattoo of Warner Brothers’ character Brain, created by artist Adam Guyot, is one of the many humorous cartoon characters that people request. Copyright image courtesy of Adam Guyot Eternal Art, used with permission, all rights reserved.

Decoded Arts: What’s the most unusual thing you’ve been asked to tattoo?

Adam Guyot: I always draw a blank to this question because there are so many crazy requests over the years that they all blur together and I can’t think of any.

I had an interesting client that was into dating amputees. I did several pin ups on him missing various limbs. I have tattooed and covered up countless names of significant others. I don’t do many strange or exotic pieces but I recently had a customer bring in actual small pieces of human bone and smash them into dust with a hammer so I could mix them into the ink. I have done that with ashes before but the bone smashing was a new experience.

The Future for Tattoos?

From ancient times to the twenty-first century, tattoos remain an important and revealing part of the culture. Rebel, commemorate a loved one, record your family history, or make yourself more attractive – whatever the reasons for your tattoo, there is no doubt it makes you different to everyone else. The sad fact is, that no matter how beautiful your body art, it only exists for the duration of your life time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *