Art is a strange thing. its one of those “things” that gets more and more diffuse the closer you try to examine it. Take a plain old leaf and put it under a microscope and it becomes hard to tell whether it is an oak leaf or a strawberry bush leaf. If you put it under a really really powerful microscope and all you get are atoms, molecules and lots and lots of space. It ceases to be a “leaf” at all at those magnifications.
Art is like that too. But being the kind of creatures people are, we always try to dissect and categorize it into little conceptual packages so we can “understand” art. We describe art as fine art or lowbrow, as illustrative or abstract or primitive. This sort of conceptualizing makes it easy to know what you are talking about with others, but we don’t just accept that its simply a label, once we name something we insist that it become the name we gave it. Art doesn’t like to be pinned down this way, it wriggles and morphs and fights labels and categorization. And when you put it under a microscope is disappears completely. Something that gets labeled pornographic or amateurish may well be hailed as genius with the passing of time. The art in question didn’t change, the observers did.
Beauty, the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder. However, the definition of beauty is also in the eye of the beholder and is not, can not, be fixed.
Which is a long way of saying that tattoos, which are beginning to enjoy a respect and admiration that was all but unimaginable a scant 20 years ago, have come around the bend at last. The long circular path from being considered crude and merit-less to cool and respectable has finally been walked. It would be tempting to believe that the influx of talent and the refinements of tattooings artistic aesthetic made this all happen but I suspect the truth lies in the other direction. I believe that in its earliest years of growing popularity it was that image of crudeness and outsider-ness which appealed to people the same way a slightly dangerous, but cheap neighborhood attracts bohemian artsy types. Once they start to fix the place up the rest of the world finds the formerly shunned neighborhood the most hip place on earth to be. So that is where we find ourselves now, on prime real-estate for the time being.
I have to admit that I would like it to stay that way, I am comfortable in this world of tattooing and as I have grown with it I feel something of a familial bond. When other tattooers talk of tattooing impending doom or of it being so watered down by the deluge of popularity I get a little defensive. I suspect that this is mostly because I am afraid somewhere in my heart of hearts that they may be right. However, the reality of the situation is that none of us, neither the cheerleaders nor the nay-sayers really know what is going to happen and the universe seems to delight in coming at us from the one angle we didn’t think to guard against. If I had to place a bet on what would happen to tattooing in the next 20 years all I could confidently assert would be that whatever form it takes wont be as “bad” or “good” as we would want it to be. It will endure and change and we will grasp onto certain traditions we deem the important ones while letting others fade away for no other reason that it is not what we currently believe is ‘good” about tattooing. (lots of people pine for the days of traditional eagles and anchors, not many wish for the return of fineline wizards and dreamcatchers)
When he was once asked whether the Chinese government would ever leave Tibet and return it to its pre-invasion status the Dali Lama replied “In the short-term I have no hope, but in the long term everything changes.” Note that he didn’t say “everything will be the way I want it to be” just that, sooner or later, things would change noticeably. So it is with tattooing, it is always changing and evolving like all art and it is always beyond our defining. We can’t pin it down to specifics and so we certainly can’t change how or what it is except on a personal level. Which is really the crux of the matter, personal responsibility.
How much easier to complain about the sad state of affairs or to sit back and point out who or what ought to be changing to suit our ideas of tattooing. But how much harder is it to point the lens at ourselves! How many who decry the state of tattooing come to work hung over, or high, or on 3 hours of sleep? How many draw a tattoo they want to do and then browbeat the customer into something they don’t really want in order to do it as a tattoo? Who among us hasnt finished a tattoo and thought “that is going to look great in my portfolio” instead of “I hope this tattoo makes the customer happy”? There are as many ways we fail as we have pointed out others failures and ours are no less harmful to our beloved tattooing than the worst scratcher. Really.
There is a solution, of sorts. Of course we can’t fix tattooing any more than we can “fix” jealousy or road rage, but we can take our tiny part in the larger whole more seriously. We can lay off the drugs and alcohol that dull our abilities, we can draw to our customers desires as well as our own. We can treat those around us as equals and not inferiors. We can hold ourselves to a standard of conduct that is in tune with the real world as it is instead of some made up old-school tough guy mentality that never existed anyway. Does that sound like a small thing? I believe that it changes everything, and that is no small thing. The cool part is that you don’t even need anyone else to do it either, our world has already changed dramatically just by holding ourselves to a higher standard. The energy I used to waste by bitching and worry over other tattooers actions now goes to my own art. Whether you like my tattoos or not, they have gotten a damn sight better since I pulled my head out of my ass. When we point all that we want to see different outside of ourselves the result is wasted effort and suffering, when we point that desire inward the result is change and improvement. The funny part is that when we do change ourselves for the better the world really does follow suit! Not because we forced it to (might as well ask a gnat to force a mountain to move) but because the universe follows what you do not what you talk about doing.