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Volume 18, Number 1
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Tattoo U
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Few things in life are permanent, so when one makes the decision to put an everlasting mark on his or her body, it’s not an insignificant act. For centuries, tattoos have been considered taboo in much of Western culture; until 1997, they weren’t even legal in New York City. In the last several years, getting tattooed has evolved from something only social outcasts did into a more or less mainstream right of passage; the art of the tattoo has done anything but fade. Yet, despite the intricate complexity of tattoo designs and the growing number of people who now display ink on their skin, as an artistic discipline tattooing is still rarely considered to be a true art form.

The BFA Illustration and Cartooning Department has begun to address this situation with a new course called Design Emblems, which, according to faculty member and tattooer Regino Gonzales, was created to “explore the historical traditions of tattoo imagery and deal with design principles necessary to create impressive ‘flash’ work.” Similar to an artist’s portfolio, a tattoo flash is a drawing or painting on paper or cardboard created to provide a choice of design for clients. A tattooer’s collection of flashes demonstrates his or her strengths and interests, and serves as a way to publicly share design ideas. Flash work can often be seen on the walls of tattoo parlors, not only giving clients a chance to select a pre-designed image but also to perhaps inspire them to come up with an idea of their own.

Department Chair Thomas Woodruff says that the course was born of the combination of the number of students interested in the discipline and the availability of Gonzales to teach the course. “I was reluctant to put a course into the curriculum until I knew I had someone with a sense of poetry and depth,” says Woodruff. “Regino is a brilliant technical tattooer, but he brings more to the table than a lot of other tattoo artists.” Gonzales is one of the artists who do work for the combination tattoo shop and gallery Invisible NYC on Orchard Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which operates at the intersection of tattoo culture and visual art. Found online at
invisiblenyc.com, the gallery’s mission statement says that its artists, “recognize that tattooing stems from a fusion of urban life and artistic creativity and that New York City is the birthplace or adopted home of many great artists and the center of major art movements. Invisible NYC is a place for interaction among artists of varied disciplines and between artists and the public. While encouraging and supporting contemporary urban art, the studio acknowledges tattooing as an influential and creative presence in the world. The tattoo studio has been redefined and the art gallery has been reinvented. The gallery and tattoo studio interact to form a synergistic whole.”

Gonzales’ tattoo portfolio is filled with—but is certainly not limited to—creations inspired by Japanese woodcuts. Contrasting heavy outlines and faint shadows, his designs fool the eye and often suggest a 3D image—a difficult feat for any artist working with a flat surface, but especially impressive in the tattoo “medium,” given the tools and flesh-based ”ground.” From forearm tattoos to images that cover the complete back of a human body, his portfolio reveals that a strong tattoo artist must be familiar with a wide range of subject matter and artistic styles.

Alumnus Spider Webb (1971 Fine Arts) is a tattoo veteran. Both an artist and published author, Webb has been in the forefront of the tattoo community for decades. Before the legalization of tattooing in New York, Webb practiced his craft despite the possible legal consequences. In addition to the thousands of people he has inked and numerous presentations he has delivered in academic institutions, Webb’s flash paintings and other work have appeared in museums, galleries and periodicals; he also designs one-of-a-kind tattoo tools. With a fearless attitude, Webb has established himself in the tattoo community as one of the greats not only for his technical abilities, but also for his defense of tattoos as a form of art.

It is difficult to place Webb in a particular niche, and his portfolio includes large and small works that are adventurous, rebellious, endearing, sentimental, beautiful and haunting. Like his clients looking to express themselves through ink, Webb’s tattoos are multidimensional in both their technical approaches and subject matter.

In the many interviews Webb has conducted during the course of his career, he often argues for tattooing’s importance in a manner that is straightforward, occasionally crass, yet unpretentious and frank. As is characteristic of tattoo culture, Webb comes across as a carefree spirit who exudes rebellion; as someone who has done a lot of living and makes no apologies for it. In a February 2008 interview for TattooFinder.com, Webb conveys the sensations one might experience when contemplating a new tattoo: “Flash is magic. It’s important and powerful. People can actually shiver looking at flash knowing that they are 15 seconds and a few coins away from having it on their body…. It’s like looking into the future. Your future,” he says.

The power behind that flash is born of very specific training and technical expertise. “The vocabulary of tattooing does not conform to traditional light and shade and traditional drawing techniques,” says Woodruff. “The design is about being bold and also aging well over time and working with the anatomy.” He is wary of shops that allow anyone who comes through the door to design their own tattoos, and is concerned that the future they are looking into is too impulsive and fashion-focused rather than being sufficiently long-term. “I personally will tell people not to be tattooed until they’re over 25,” he says.

It was in his youth that Dave Attonito (BFA 1989 Illustration) began to develop a strong interest in the studio arts. Like many of his fellow SVA alumni, it was during high school that he decided he wanted to pursue a creative path. His career in tattooing began quite serendipitously. “In late 1991, I was in a magazine store where I picked up a tattoo magazine and started flipping through it,” he says. “The next day I went back and bought the magazine. A couple of months later on my birthday I got my first tattoo, and I was hooked.” In 1993, after several jobs where he felt his work was being “art-directed to death,” Attonito decided it was time to work for himself as a tattoo artist; he now owns and operates his own shop, Good Clean Fun in Snellville, Georgia.

While Attonito is optimistic that the majority of people entering the tattoo field will contribute to the progress of the tattoo as an art form, he sees the overall effect of tattooing’s rise in popularity as not entirely positive. Why has the current population, especially young adults, become so interested in getting inked? Attonito blames the emerging mass appeal of tattoos, with television the primary culprit. “Tattooing has become far too commercial. The field really went to hell after the tattoo TV shows [like TLC’s L.A. Ink] started popping up,” he says. “Shortly after that, tattoo studios started opening up on every corner. People started getting into tattooing not for the love of the art, but because it was the ‘cool thing’ to do. Tattooing has become acceptable and mainstream. It’s in commercials, on billboards, and all over the Internet. The danger is gone, the mystery is gone, and you sure as hell aren’t rebelling by getting a tattoo anymore.”

While there may be a bright, and possibly temporary, public spotlight shining on tattoos right now, it’s not necessarily to the detriment of the discipline. Scott Harrison (MFA 1999 Illustration as Visual Essay) has been tattooing for 20 years, and has seen over time that he’s needed to make adjustments for the expanded audience that is attracted to tattoos. “I recently had to have a sign made that reads ‘Only one generation per family allowed in the operatory per procedure,’ and that was to accompany my ‘Absolutely no handholding’ sign,” he says. “When I started, those signs would have been completely unnecessary and unthinkable.” But he also sees the current moment as a necessary stop on a much longer path for the art form. “As a medium it’s an organic phenomenon that takes on different forms in different cultures,” says Harrison. “Over time what doesn’t work dies off, and what does is passed on.”

The current trend is focusing market and cultural attention on tattoos, but there is always the danger that once the allure and interest wanes, there will be bad financial implications for the industry. “The tattoo field is oversaturated,” says Attonito. “It used to be a business where the best tattooers did well, and the others gave up. Now it has become a matter of clients going from shop to shop, looking for the cheapest price and giving no thought to quality. I know lots of great tattooers who can’t even make a living anymore because some hack opened up down the road and will do tattoos for $20 and a six-pack.” These types of market forces can end up weakening the overall integrity of tattoo art, and consequently diminish the core of tattoo culture.

Unlike other trends that end up creating quickly outdated kitschy memorabilia, tattoos are permanently etched into one’s body; they cannot be easily discarded and forgotten. As tattoo culture looks to see if it can find an equilibrium between its original, outlaw state and the current spike in popularity, it’s important for the next wave of tattoo artists to understand that the breadth of history and depth of creativity are the invisible ink behind the best tattoo practice. “The current explosion of popularity and media hype can’t last,” says Harrison, “but I think the raw power of the medium will continue to blossom. For every soccer mom getting tattooed down at the mall, there is a deep individual somewhere getting tattooed by a serious tattooer who is tapped into the timeless power of the medium.”

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