time to change the way we view music and the arts

Tattoos, Context, Content and Art(s) Acceptance

Ink Master TV show logo

“Ink Master” Reality Show Logo
(Cit. Spike TV Press Center)

A Response Piece to Arts Journalist Chloe Veltman 

I was surprised and delighted to see the the piece you wrote the day after Christmas, titled, “Ink Master” and at the top of the ArtsJournal highlights. It’s great to see a less “traditional” art medium being brought to light through this widely read outlet and your blog. An enjoyable read to be sure.

So, I happened to watch this entire season of the reality show in question and you raise a rather salient point about the lack of discussion over tattoo content that I had never bothered to contemplate during the whole program run –probably because content is something they could never breach; too subjective in the world of body art. Since you had been wondering –they never did discuss it– it wasn’t just the one episode “devoid” as you thought.

Despite the fact that reality shows can often be ‘scripted’ to a point, to increase attractive drama, I still find it enthralling to hear the reasons why all these contestants do what they do, as most were covered in tattoos of their own. Although such an appearance might give one a strong first impression about any of them in particular, as with many things in life, there is more to this profession and the reality show itself, than what’s on the surface and it really breaks down barriers of what an average, non-tattooed individual might come to think and/or feel if they ran into one of these tattoo artists on the street.

Interestingly, though conversing about tattoo content would be too subjective to add as a full element to the show, there was one installment wherein a sort of schism broke out between the judges and one competitor who happened to have no body art whatsoever. You could say that for this specific moment in time, a very clear and adamant line of prejudice, bias and stereotyping had breached the program. Guest judge for the tenth episode was Massachusetts based tattoo artist, Forrest Cavacco. A tattoo industry veteran of 20 years, Cavacco expressed a clear distaste and lack of respect for any artist who dared not have ink of any kind, as according to him,

“…I can’t respect not having tattoos. If you want to be respected as a tattooer in the business, you need some tattoos. In tattooing people, you gotta know what it’s like, what it feels like and experience it so you know.”

Of course, let it be known that Cavacco wasn’t all about tearing down a guy just for his chosen body presentation. The artist’s work being judged was given positive credit. Nonetheless, herein lies a very revealing opinion that is not only Cavacco’s. Fellow judge and tattoo artist, Chris Nùñez, said it outright as well:

“I don’t like the fact that [he] doesn’t have tattoos. Every one of us wears the mark. We all get tattooed because we love it and we believe in it.”

Both Cavacco and Nùñez see firsthand application of having ink representing a sign of understanding and support about one’s trade. In this way, images so often touted as publicly inappropriate and unflattering create a serious dividing line, and even what could be considered ostracizing, if one is seen without them. It becomes almost humorous to think of a lack of tattoo art as being a cause for negative isolation, while the rest of most professional occupations at large –particularly those steeped in the arts– want them either unseen or confined only to contexts which the arts industry has deemed ‘for that sort of thing.’

Take for example, your description and subsequent association with “aggressive-grotesque heavy metal style tattoos,” and further description of one piece in particular, as being, “zombie-like [and usually seen] on so many heavy metal fans’ bodies, T-shirts and posters.” While there isn’t much debate to be had about skulls, rotted flesh and blood being connected to the dead and to things more macabre, which for many metal bands serve as album art, band logos and stage props, I see this as a chaining together of musical genre and non-musical sub-culture –something that I feel is still far too prevalent (and in a skewed way,) among the arts.

Though it is easy to pull in the more aggressive musical genres of old when external sub-cultures like tattoos are involved, is it really fair to do so, given the very notion that you found the meticulous nature of tattoo analysis interesting and appealing, hoping for more exposure and serious critique of other non-mainstream art forms in the future?

Really, I am not writing this to criticize your piece, so much as to ask your opinion on this additional angle of observation. It is my belief that music and external sub-cultures need to gain enough distance from one another so that those who are in the arts world might not be automatically boxed into to a certain crowd or “lifestyle” within the overall industry just because of some visual component of their appearance or non-musical interests. Though I would not want to be the ‘carte blanche’ that receives an undead face across my back, it is not always for the public to know why, or for whom, one’s tattoo depicts what it does. If and when you do find out, there is often a major surprise to be had, just like the gradually revealed, more personal and substantial reasons that a bunch of tattooed people decide to go on national TV.

What you might see as an allusion to darkness or a rebellion against the foundations of the “traditional arts” (and all the expected behaviors therein,) might in full disclosure, be a reference to something, for example, operatic. After all, what medium is more traditional, long-stating and often presumed elitist, than opera? Yet, as arts administrators attempt to break the old ways and attract new, younger fans, they are having to paint opera and its storytelling content in a different light that initially focuses less on belted notes in foreign languages and more on the relatable themes of: love, heartbreak, life, murder, death, conflict, deception…and who can forget, sex. (See my piece on the advert from the English National Opera for “Don Giovanni.”)

Looked at for what these descriptors are, minus the costuming, staging, singing and delicate atmosphere that accompanies traditional opera, are these not some of the very same themes of extremity that could be associated with the zombie and skull imagery you pinned toward metal heads? Would it be too outrageous to imagine a scenario where perhaps a diehard opera fan decides to have a large back piece tattooed on themselves to depict a scene from a classic or newer opera, and to consider that said scene, carved forever in their skin, might initially seem just as grotesque or disturbing as any metal associated imagery? I could think of a few ‘disturbing’ examples easily:

1. “Faust” and the devil

2. “The Enchanted Island’s” Caliban or Syncorax in mourning. (The Metropolitan Opera’s production has both characters costumed to appear rather decrepit and disfigured themselves; Caliban looking like a man in a partial ape suit and Syncorax severely and exaggeratedly aged, as a powerless witch.)

and for an example less modern,

3. “Otello” for Desdemona’s murder by strangulation. (One could argue this comes across all the more disturbing if the singer is an adept and emotive actor as well, able to convey serious murderous intent to the audience via facial expression and body language.)

Take the defined plot points of these or many other operas and then add in the creative/interpretive freedom of both a client and tattoo artist for when the two decide on a final stencil for the skin. Any element of an operatic picture, from the people and scenery to the degree of realism or lack thereof, can be created to what best fits the client’s desires and the artist’s chosen style. (Unfortunately, you did not get exposure to the full range of Ink Master’s tattoo styles but some were indeed locked into what they loved and did best.) Therefore, in theory, a person could request an overtly intense interpretation of a Faustian deal, drawn in realism, with a black and grey spin. Suddenly the image is less immediately recognizable to opera fans and possibly more likely to be concluded as a doom metal album cover.

It’s like the negative space in a photo. One shift in perspective and a completely different concept appears before your eyes….

To end my two cents on this matter Ms. Veltman, I was very positively inspired by what you had to say on this matter and the thought you provoked in your own observations. I just wonder what you might have to say about mine, in lieu of the roots of this industry in which we clearly both cherish working and supporting through our writing.

5 Responses to “Tattoos, Context, Content and Art(s) Acceptance”

    • Kira

      Hi Randy,

      Appreciate the sentiment very much. I am glad to hear your enjoyed reading the post, I hope you’ll come back and read more in the future!



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