Tattoos Gain Acceptance
The tattoo is no longer quite the symbol of rebellion and subculture it once was. These days, one in five Americans has one. And that rate is considerably higher amongst millennials. Yes, in today's culture, tattoos are quite popular. In fact, some tattoo artists, such as Nikko Hurtado, have close to a million Instagram followers. Meanwhile, the stigma around tattoos in the workplace is slowly fading in the business and corporate communities.
Tattoos As Fine Art
Tattoo art is finally beginning to be recognized as legitimate 'fine art', and is even being featured in museum exhibits. “If you look through art history, there’s always an art form that’s emerging that’s not as accepted,” says Lee Anne Hurt Chesterfield, art curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. One example is woodblock printing. “It wasn’t exactly considered museum-worthy for a long period, and now every museum you walk into will have something related to woodblock printing,” she adds.
But even as tattoos are becoming 'museum-worthy', there are considerations that differentiate them from traditional fine arts. Tattoos are body art, and, as a matter of practicality, can only be exhibited as photographs. Many tattoo artists, such as the Japanese master Horiyoshi III, say their drawings can only fully come alive on the skin. “This is why I never show my designs as so-called art,” Horiyoshi told the Japan Times in 2007.
The 'Lost' Artist
Takahiro Kitamura is a Japanese-American artist who is famous for his large-scale tattoos, and has several works in the Guernsey Museum exhibition. “If the VMFA is putting us in the same museum as Picassos and Rembrandts, then I think that’s a pretty good argument that is an art form,” he says.
Over the last century, tattooing has evolved away from “flash,” or pre-designed illustrations. Today, high-end tattoo artists can spend 30 or 40 hours (often at hundreds of dollars per hour) working on a single, custom piece, and often develop close relationships with their clients. But once the tattoo is finished, their art walks out the door - a fact that conflicts with the traditional tendency to associate the artwork with its creator rather than its 'owner'. “You get good at letting go,” says Kim Saigh, a Los Angeles-based artist who appeared on the reality show L.A. Ink. “Tattoos have a life of their own.”
A Different Business Model
This kind of client-oriented arrangement is somewhat akin to the Renaissance-era patronage system. Then, a wealthy sponsor would pay the living wages of an artist in return for their commissioned work. In the era of Michelangelo and Leonardo, the cache of sponsorship contributed to the evolution of some from 'craftsman' to 'artist'. Today, artists like Los Angeles’s Mark Mahoney and Dr. Woo have achieved celebrity status, with up to a 2-year wait for an appointment.
The Tattoo Today
In recent years, the art world has fully opened its doors to another stigmatized form—street art. A 2011 show of graffiti at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles was the most-attended exhibition in the museum’s history. A clear sign of the general public’s interest in unconventional, yet familiar, art. The same seems to be happening with tattoos.