Tattooing is great for debates! Do you call your self a tattooer, a tattooist, or a tattoo artist? Do tattoos look better done simply and graphically or painterly and realistically? Rotary or coil machine? Is thick ink better than thin? There is no aspect of the tattooing world which is not ripe for opinion and argument, especially since tattooing is a term which covers a huge variety of things that almost everyone involved is knowledgeable and passionate about. Perhaps one of the most contentious debate is the one about whether tattooing is an art or a craft.
Those who claim it is an art point out that tattooing generally requires some artistic skill, is a creative activity, and can often (though not always) express some visual indication of the abstracts of the human condition. A tattoo can, like a painting, poem, or sculpture, give physical form to an emotion, a state of mind, or an aspiration and in this it is clearly in the camp of things generally accepted as “art”. On the other hand, those who feel that tattooing is a craft believe that the tattooer is generally following another persons directive, design, and ideas about what the tattoo is, they also prefer to connect tattooing to its long history of blue-collar/ military foundations and not what they say is the more selfish “arty farty” aspect of the tattooer using another person as a “canvas”. Tattooing is a service, they point out, like being a house painter or a mechanic, it requires the skills of s crafts person as opposed to the more (in the traditional view) free form self-expression of the artist.
The fact that this debate has been around for years and is so dependent on what each person deems “real” tattooing should tell us that there can be no “right answer”. However unlike the choice of inks or machines I do not believe that this question is simply a matter of opinion. I do think that there is a “real” answer and I do think that the secret to a resolution doesn’t lie in one side presenting more evidence than the other or in one persons chosen side being older, more popular, or more passionate than the other side. I believe that the real answer to the question of whether tattooing is a craft or an art is not found in the answer at all, it is in the question. More specifically I believe that the question “is tattooing art or craft?” is actually wrong even in the asking!
I believe that tattooing is outside of the question, and that it cannot be definitively landed in either category because tattooing is, by its very nature, beyond either a craft OR an art. There has never been anything like tattooing. And despite the fact that tattoos are very much like an art or a craft Tattooing is none the less outside of those concepts altogether. Tattooing hearkens back to an older time when there was a slew of activities which spanned the line between a “pure” art and the craftsman’s domain. When buildings were built to be both functional places of life or commerce AND were bedecked with ornament and were supposed to uplift the viewer even if they had no business inside the building itself. There was a time when a fork, or a flintlock pistol, or a suit of armor was crafted to be as functional, and as efficient as possible and yet was still built to be a delight to look upon as well. The deadly efficiency of the samurai’s sword was melded with exquisite laquerwork scabbards and elaborately carved tsuba, and even the humble kitchen chair was turned on a lathe and carved with scroll-work and clawfeet for no other reason than every crafts-person was also an artist and every artist worked with their hands , art was craft and vice versa. As the world becomes more and more obsessed with pure functionality the gulf between something built for function and something built for beauty widens. Louis the 14th would have found a house designed by Frank lloyd Wright to be a boring and soulless thing!
An old zen teacher once described comparison as “the lowest form of thought”, and yet we live in an age of comparison now, where everything must be named, compartmentalized, analyzed, and described in its opposition to anything else. A shovel is only a shovel because it is not a rake, and a lawyer is a lawyer because he or she is not a doctor. We like thick black lines drawn around everything in our world so that we can more easily measure it against everything else. It comforts us in our unsure minds to think that we have the name of everything and thus control it the way ancient sorcerers supposedly controlled demons by knowing their “true name”. Many of us who tattoo for a living feel like we have to put tattooing in one of those boxes as well, we must call it new-school or traditional, bold or soft, art or craft and we believe that by putting the conceptual wall around it that we are somehow “defending” tattooing.
But real life has no thick black lines around it, the divisions between this and that, tall or short are revealed, in the end, to be the product of our minds, our notoriously unreliable, un stable, unobjective minds. Tattooing, it seems, is beyond our naming and our concepts. It is an art AND a craft and it is neither. It exists as its own thing and it doesn’t care what camp we prefer it in. It is a well-known contradiction in science that light can be observed to act as both a particle AND a wave which, according to everything we know about physics, should be impossible! The light doesn’t care that its impossible, and just goes right on being both and neither simultaneously!
In my mind there are not two camps, but three! Art, craft, and tattooing! When someone asks how a tattoo feels we often ay its a bit like a cut, or a scrape, or that its hot or that it stings sort of like a bee but not exactly when in the end it is really like none of those things, in the end a tattoo feels like a tattoo, and thats it! The answer is the experience itself!
So our feeble words can describe only things that is not like, but our language can’t capture the subtle million ways that tattooing exists in our world and trying to cram it into a box (even a box as wide and unspecific as “art” or “craft”) is like trying to describe the taste of an orange to someone who has never had one.