Stereotypes of tattoos disappearing as new appreciation grows

Gone are the days of tattoo artists learning their trade by practising on drifters while riding in train cars, as legendary “Sailor” Jerry Collins once did.

 Now, there is a rise of increasingly colourful and detailed custom pieces and an explosion in the variation of what goes onto people’s bodies. While clients can request pre-drawn art, the majority of work being produced by tattooists are custom commissions.

Artists are pursuing fine arts degrees and incorporating what they’ve learned into existing tattoo styles and iconography.

One of those tattooists is local artist Doug Fink, who owns and operates Bushido on 17th avenue SW.  Fink, who has a degree in fine arts from the University of Calgary, has been tattooing for 13 years.

He recently moved towards furthering his work in other artistic mediums while doing tattoo commissions on a case-by-case basis, a freedom he enjoys due to having a loyal clientele that refers other like-minded people to him.

Demand for Fink’s services is high, and potential clients can have wait times of more than a year. He is also very selective about who he inks.Alyssa Hurtado displays her finished piece at the Calgary Tattoo & Arts Festival. The photorealistic tattoo depicting Marilyn Monroe was done by Nikko Hurtado from Black Anchor Collective and has appeared as a guest on LA Ink.

Photo by: Trevor Presilosk“My biggest thing is reading people. If you get a client at a consultation that seems weird, you say ‘I don’t want to do the project.’ If someone’s waiting a year and they were not the easiest person to deal with, after a year it’s not going to make it better. “

It’s not unheard of for larger pieces to take 25 to 50 hours and cost thousands of dollars, much the same as a painting would. Despite all the effort and care that goes into creating a tattoo, perceptions are slow to change.

“The people who are really into the art world, they don’t see tattooing as an art form. You could ask an oil painter who is in galleries in New York and he’d laugh at you,” Rick Wilson says. He’s been inking for 15 years.

“There are still some people who feel that it is a subculture,” tattooist Chris Winn says. “Fine art is such a loosely based term, we see so many different types of art called ‘fine art.’ With tattoos, so much goes into them and it’s just as important and relevant as any fine art.”

Winn was recently featured as a returning guest curator at the Oceanside Museum of Art in California for the third “Masterworks of Body Art” exhibit, which featured a tattoo runway show, showcasing the work of numerous tattoo artists.

“It’s such a great idea. It’s such a new concept for the artists that do tattoos,” Winn, a tattoo artist of 20 years, stated.

“We do all the things an artist does before he paints a piece, the difference is that we’re doing it on a living canvas versus one that you can throw away.”

Working on a living canvas presents challenges not seen in other mediums. Winn says it “tends to put way more pressure on us than it does your fine artist. You can’t walk away and be like ‘come back later.’”

Fink shares that mindset.

“When I’m walking through a grocery store and an elderly lady asks me about my tattoos and asks if she can touch them? That doesn’t happen with a piece of art. You can’t communicate with a piece of art.”

– Chris Winn, California-based tattoo artist and guest curator.“I paint, sculpt, weld, do some computer stuff. I’ve been doing similar projects for 20 years. That stuff, I can throw away. Tattooing? Your experimentation, that’s happening in public.”

“It’s a constantly moving monster that can bite you and that’s what makes it painful, stressful and hard, but makes it more rewarding than other art.”

That recognition of tattoo art being an incredibly demanding medium hasn’t carried over, despite the increased profile of tattoos.

“Tattooing has blown up in the last five years, with TV and everything else,” Wilson says, referring to the popularity of shows like Miami Ink.

But TV popularity doesn’t always equal respect.

“I do think people are misled a lot,” he says. “They assume you can draw something up in half an hour and get a full sleeve tattooed that day. For a sleeve, you’re going to spend a lot of time researching and drawing. I would spend six or eight hours working on it before even putting the stencil on.”

And the end result is a quality piece, one that is a work seen everywhere the wearer goes.

“You may not see that piece again,” Winn says, referring to the tattooist. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t 150,000 (people) throughout the lifetime of that piece that will see it.”

Winn does see a special place for tattoos, one that makes it worthy of respect.Brayden Howie shows off a back piece being done by Sarah Eastick from Invermere’s Fire Vixen Tattoos at the Calgary Tattoo & Arts Festival.

Photo by: Trevor PresiloskiIt is an engaging medium. When I’m walking through a grocery store and an elderly lady asks me about my tattoos and asks if she can touch them? That doesn’t happen with a piece of art. You can’t communicate with a piece of art.”

“We’re seeing the death of tattoo stereotypes and the rebirth of tattoo as a fine art,” Damian McGrath, webmaster of www.tattoos.com, said. “I’ve been watching contemporary tattooing evolve and the line has blurred with tattoo artists. They’re no longer just craftsmen or practitioners of tattoos, but fine artists.”

McGrath, a self-described “tattoo goodwill ambassador,” was the organizer behind “Death the Art Show,” a collection of original works from tattoo artists from around the world that was recently showcased in Calgary. The show will be travelling the world, with a stop off in the prestigious 798 Art District in Beijing, China.

tpresiloski@cjournal.ca