The rise of the tat­too

Body of work From the un­der­classes to the masses via Win­ston Churchill: we chart the art his­tory of ink on skin

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From Picts and Poly­ne­sians via con­victs and Win­ston Churchill, we look at the his­tory of art on skin.

Myke Cham­bers would tat­too his fel­low pris­on­ers us­ing a makeshift ma­chine fit­ted with hand-wrapped coils and hand-sharp­ened nee­dles. It was pow­ered by his clock ra­dio.

Hav­ing left home at 15 – on the run af­ter an armed rob­bery – he lived hand-to-mouth hop­ping freight trains around the US with his lit­tle brother Ste­vie. He be­gan his tat­too­ing ap­pren­tice­ship in New Or­leans. But an itin­er­ant ex­is­tence, es­ca­lat­ing drink and drug prob­lems, ex­ac­er­bated by the death of Ste­vie, and his crim­i­nal past even­tu­ally caught up with up him.

Af­ter four years in a Texas pen­i­ten­tiary, and af­ter beat­ing his ad­dic­tions, Myke had to learn his craft all over again. He’d spent too long “tat­too­ing high”, he says. “What first at­tracted me to tat­too­ing,” says Myke, “is some­thing that’s pretty much nonex­is­tent now: I loved that it was the part of the un­der­belly of so­ci­ety and the art world. I started tat­too­ing around 20 years ago and it was still mostly un­der­ground and taboo.”

The tat­too artist now has al­most half a mil­lion likes on Face­book. He de­scribes his style as tra­di­tional with a strong Amer­i­cana in­flu­ence. Home is the North­ern Lib­erty Tat­too stu­dio in Philadel­phia, but he continues to travel the world tire­lessly. His ap­point­ments at fes­ti­vals and con­ven­tions are snapped up in­stantly.

street art

Grow­ing up in no­to­ri­ous east Los Angeles, his first mem­o­ries of tat­toos were on mem­bers of street gangs. While Myke him­self em­bod­ies the kind of out­law char­ac­ter his­tor­i­cally as­so­ci­ated with tat­toos, he says ink’s im­age has changed dras­ti­cally in re­cent years.

“Only bik­ers, gang mem­bers and ser­vice­men were get­ting tat­tooed,” he says. “Tat­too­ing has been cat­a­pulted into the main­stream by celebrity tat­toos, re­al­ity TV and tat­too pub­li­ca­tions. They all make it more ac­cept­able. See­ing some­one with a tat­too was once rare, but now you can’t walk to a cor­ner store in any city with­out see­ing at least one tat­tooed per­son.”

Oth­ers ar­gue tat­toos were seen as civilised long be­fore the 21st century. Dr Matt Lod­der, an art his­to­rian spe­cial­is­ing in the his­tory of tat­too­ing as an artis­tic prac­tice, points to a Jan­uary 1926 Van­ity Fair

re­port which says: “Tat­too­ing has passed from the sav­age to the sailor, from the sailor to the lands­man. It has since per­co­lated through the en­tire so­cial stra­tum… and may now be found be­neath many a tai­lored shirt.” Matt says there’s been no whole­sale change in the sta­tus of tat­toos in re­cent years. It’s the aes­thet­ics that have changed.

so­cial skin

It’s ru­moured Win­ston Churchill was tat­tooed. His mother def­i­nitely was. Tat­toos were fash­ion­able in Vic­to­rian Lon­don, with so­ci­ety girls and aris­to­crats. And many 19th­cen­tury Euro­pean roy­als had tats – in­spired by the dap­per fu­ture King Ed­ward VII.

It’s true that ink was par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar with out­siders, mis­fits and mis­cre­ants. By the late 1800s, 90 per cent of the Bri­tish Navy was tat­tooed – a tur­tle sig­ni­fied you’d crossed the equa­tor, an an­chor the At­lantic. Bik­ers and crim­i­nal gangs adopted their own iconog­ra­phy. But you can trace tat­toos lin­eage back even fur­ther.

Ex­plorer James Cook, in the 18th century, re­turned home with draw­ings of what the Poly­ne­sians called a “tatau”. Julius Cae­sar was a fan of tat­toos found on the Picts – the in­hab­i­tants of north­ern Bri­tain dur­ing Ro­man times, whose name lit­er­ally means “the painted people”. There have been stun­ning ex­am­ples of body art found among an­cient civil­i­sa­tions in Egypt, Asia and be­yond. Tat­toos served many pur­poses, from sta­tus sym­bols to ward­ing off evil spir­its, for pun­ish­ment and for their per­ceived heal­ing pow­ers.

Per­haps the most star­tling dis­cov­ery in

Ötzi the Ice­man, a man who lived over 5,000 years ago, was found to have more than 50 tat­toos

the his­tory of tat­too­ing was found on Ötzi the Ice­man – a well-pre­served nat­u­ral mummy of a man who lived over 5,000 years ago, and who was found to have more than 50 tat­toos.

“Tat­too­ing and its co­in­ci­dent prac­tices are a con­stant fea­ture of all cul­tures on Earth,” Matt says. “There has al­ways been, and will al­ways be, a group of people driven in­ex­orably to per­ma­nently mark their bod­ies.”

He ar­gues the rel­a­tive per­cent­ages of people with a tat­too – “about 30 per cent or so have at least one tat­too” – hasn’t changed much in 20 years ago. The change, he says, is more to do with vis­i­bil­ity, both in terms of lo­ca­tion of tat­toos on the body – hand, neck, face – and an in­crease in the “dis­play of naked flesh in pub­lic”.

Ev­ery tat­too starts as a line draw­ing on paper, so ev­ery good tat­tooer must first be a good il­lus­tra­tor

“Since the late 90s,” continues Matt, “UK trends have moved from tribal, through tra­di­tional, into black and grey and now to very stark, graphic, black tat­too­ing – al­most prison-es­que. We’re prob­a­bly due a re­vival of large black­work. There are some in­cred­i­ble artists, such as To­mas To­mas at Into You, do­ing this re­mark­able avant­garde dig­i­tal tribal work – which I think will soon catch the at­ten­tion of the fash­ion-hun­gry young­sters cur­rently into smaller black­work pieces.”

Once you have whichever style of tat­too is in vogue, chances are, like Matt, you won’t stop there. Univer­sity of West­min­ster psy­chol­o­gist Dr Viren Swami, who’s con­ducted ex­ten­sive stud­ies of people with tat­toos, found most wait be­tween two and seven years be­fore get­ting their sec­ond tat­too. The trend for a more dis­cern­ing tat­too-buy­ing pub­lic mir­rors a change in the de­mo­graphic of those get­ting into tat­too­ing.

Myke Cham­bers sug­gests the re­cent “quan­tum leap in tat­too­ing’s evo­lu­tion” is down, in part, to an in­flux of art school grad­u­ates into the in­dus­try – those artists who found work hard to come by af­ter grad­u­at­ing and turned to tat­toos. It’s one of the few artis­tic en­deav­ours that can pay rel­a­tively well from the get-go. But the tran­si­tion from more tra­di­tional forms isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a sim­ple one.

Ja­son Don­ahue works at Idle Hand in the Lower Haight district of San Fran­cisco. He says many tat­too artists paint with wa­ter­colours or liq­uid acrylics, as they best re­late to tat­too­ing. “I ap­proach a wa­ter­colour just like a tat­too,” he says. “Black out­line, black shad­ing, then colour. Ev­ery tat­too starts as a line draw­ing on paper, so ev­ery tat­tooer must first be a good il­lus­tra­tor. I think there are so many bad tat­too­ers out there be­cause people start tat­too­ing be­fore they re­ally even know how to draw.”

artis­tic cross­over

Ja­son also points to a cross­over with sculp­ture. Tat­too artists need to think three­d­i­men­sion­ally, de­sign­ing and plac­ing tat­toos that’ll work with and com­ple­ment hu­man anatomy – es­pe­cially when you get into large-scale tat­toos.

“Be­ing a skilled artist is no guar­an­tee you’ll make a good tat­too artist,” says Ja­son. “It’s a highly tech­ni­cal medium, so it takes a cer­tain type of per­son. You need to be artis­tic as well as me­chan­i­cally in­clined. You’re also deal­ing with blood, so you need train­ing in blood-borne pathogens and cross-con­tam­i­na­tion.”

Ja­son thinks tat­too­ing’s rise in pop­u­larly – or at least rise in vis­i­bil­ity – is good. And de­spite con­ced­ing he does miss the days when the form was a lit­tle more taboo, there’s no other pro­fes­sion he’d rather be in.

“I love ev­ery­thing about tat­too­ing. I get to draw for a liv­ing. I love hang­ing out in the tat­too shop. My co-work­ers are also my best friends. The shop is like our club­house. I love all my clients and am hon­oured ev­ery time some­one chooses me to do their tat­too. I love that what I do makes people happy. Just the fact that tat­too­ing is pos­si­ble is what al­ways at­tracted me to it. It still blows my mind that you can put a pic­ture in your skin, and it will stay there for­ever.”

An in­tri­cate and elab­o­rate tat­too by the hand of Lon­don-born, Van­cou­ver­based tat­too artist Matt Hous­ton. “The days of scruffy walk-in tat­too par­lours are num­bered,” says Gas­town Tat­too Par­lour’s Matt Hous­ton. “They’ve largely been re­placed by cus­tom stu­dios with spe­cialised artists.”

“I find it’s such an hon­our that people let me per­ma­nently al­ter their bod­ies,” says tat­too artist Myke Cham­bers.

“My he­roes are my clients,” says Myke

Cham­bers. “The world is my gallery.”

Princess Leia by Myke Cham­bers, who works at North­ern Lib­erty Tat­too in Philadel­phia.

Dark im­agery with fan­tasy el­e­ments, like this piece, are a spe­cial­ity of San Fran­cisco-based tat­too artist Ja­son Don­ahue.

Artist such as Ed Hardy and Thom De­vita paved the way for tat­too­ing as an art form, says Idle Hand’s Ja­son Don­ahue.

Myke Cham­bers’ night­mar­ish vi­sion of Moby Dick is part of the rich, long-stand­ing tra­di­tion of sto­ry­telling in tat­toos.

Tiger Lady by Myke Cham­bers, who de­scribes his Amer­i­cana-in­spired style as tra­di­tional.

“Tat­too­ing will al­ways be a lit­tle more craft than art,” says Ja­son Don­ahue, “be­cause, as a tat­tooer, there’s only a lit­tle room for per­sonal ex­pres­sion.”

Matt Hous­ton, the artist be­hind this piece, says diplo­macy is key to en­sur­ing clients get what they want – but also get­ting some­thing they won’t re­gret.

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