FOREVER: The New Tattoo – Wie neu ist die Idee wirklich?
Der Sommer ist jetzt so gut wie vorbei und mit ihm auch die Zeit, in der mir einfach jeder optisch sein Tattoo aufgedrängt hat. Ich kann doch nicht die Einzige gewesen sein, die sich in Anbetracht der vielen leicht bekleideten Menschen mit chinesischen Schriftzeichen, Tribals, Sternchen oder Blumen visuell belästigt gefühlt hat?! Ich habe Körperstellen gesehen, die ganz sicherlich nicht für die Öffentlichkeit gedacht waren und auf vielen von ihnen tummelten sich die… ja… außergewöhnlichsten Langzeit-Körperverzierungen, die man sich nur vorstellen kann. Aber nun ist es vorbei und weil man jetzt kaum noch Tattoos sieht (Ausnahmen natürlich schon berechnet), haben sich die Damen & Herren von GESTALTEN überlegt, dass es an der Zeit wäre, das komplexe Thema Tattoos mal von Experten beleuchten zu lassen. Herausgekommen ist dabei das Buch “FOREVER: The New Tattoo”.
Das Buch zeigt die Styles verschiedener, internationaler Tattoo-Künstler und versucht, die Faszination mit der Gestaltung und Veränderung des Körpers auf den Punkt zu bringen. Dabei kommen bekannte Künstler wie Alex Binnie und Duncan X zu Wort. Wer die Namen noch nicht gehört hat: Halb so schlimm. Im Video könnt ihr euch die Beiden mal ansehen und erklären lassen, was die Tattookultur ausmacht und wie sie ihre eigene Arbeit verstehen. Außerdem kriegt ihr einen Vorgeschmack auf die vielen Bilder im Buch.
Ich habe im Vorfeld mal mit dem Autor des Vorworts gequatscht, Matt Lodder. Der 32-jährige Londoner beschäftigt sich auf eine ganz besondere Art und Weise mit Tattoos: Als Universitätsdozent und Autor erforscht er die historischen Ursprünge von Tattoos. 2010 machte er seinen Doktor in Kunstgeschichte zum Thema “Tattoos als Kunst in Großbritannien von 1870 bis heute”. Weil es aber mit akademischen Texte immer so eine Sache ist, habe ich ihn mal gefragt, wie denn seine eigene “Tattoo-Geschichte” begonnen hat und was es mit dem Vorurteil auf sich hat, dass Tattoos nur für Matrosen und Kriminelle gedacht waren.
When did you get your first tattoo?
Because I’d gotten into tattoos so young, way before I could ever actually get one, I guess I learned quite quickly that I didn’t want a bad tattoo. I didn’t make that mistake that a lot of people do and get a terrible tattoo under-age. I was also a pretty well-behaved, swotty kid (I’m a well-behaved, swotty adult now!) and I was terrified of what my parents would say! When I moved away to university, I started getting pierced in the very first week, but I didn’t get tattooed until I was 21 years old, and living in France. I got black stars tattooed on my wrists at the Belfort Tattoo Convention by Jack Mosher (I actually saw Jack last year and showed them to him – he was pretty pleased with them, more than ten years on!).
Because of the cautionary tales I’d grown up with, about how tattoos would ruin my life, I was really, really scared about getting tattooed. I thought it would be such a huge moment. An epiphany. A Rubicon. But actually, I went into work the next day and no-one even noticed, despite me doing my best to proudly-but-subtly show them off!
How many do you have? Do you even count them?
Probably somewhere in the region of 150 hours total, maybe? I’ve never really counted. It’s all one big tattoo at this point.I can tell you I’ve been tattooed by thirteen different tattoo artists.
Why did you decide to make tattoos the center of your life since your whole work is based on them?
When I was a teenager at school, I was really interested in literature and theatre theory – particularly Brecht and Artaud. But no-one told me back then that I could make a living reading and thinking and teaching about the things that interested me. I don’t come from an academic family at all, so a career as an academic didn’t ever occur to me. In pursuit of a “real job”, I went to university to study to become a translator and interpreter; I’d loved languages since childhood and thought a career in languages would be a great way to see the world and make a living. In a year out from my degree, I worked in France and in Germany as a technical translator and interpreter in heavy manufacturing, but I soon realised the dream I’d had of seeing the world wasn’t quite the full story — rather than the world, I was seeing conference centres and hotel rooms and airport lounges. So I went back to finish my degree, a little confused and a little disheartened.
During the final year of my French & German degree, I took a module in European Cinema, and during the course we were studying theories of representation – all these French- and German-speaking philosophers and writers who have written about how to think about bodies: de Beauvoir, Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Merleau-Ponty, Genet, Freud, Artaud etc. During that course I realised two things: one, it was possible, like my lecturer, to make a living reading books and telling people about them, and two, there was this whole corpus of thinking that rung very true with the things I was doing with my own body at the time – piercing and tattooing.
I took this amazing Master’s Degree at the University of Reading which explored these themes of the Body and Representation in much more detail, and as I started reading academic work on tattooing, the more I realised how little of it chimed with my own experiences in tattoo shops, and as a tattooed person in the world. The theory and the history was often written very much from an outsider’s perspective, and seemed to make some very odd assumptions about what body art was, and how it ‘worked’, as it were. So, like most people with humanities PhDs, because I couldn’t find the answers I was looking for in the books that had already been published, I started researching towards writing my own.
Where did the stigma of “tattoos are for sailors and prisoners” come from and how did it change?
I have found examples of the popular press announcing the *end* of this stigma for about 100 years – my favourite is probably an article from the New York Times saying that “the habit is not confined to seamen only” from 1908. The truth is that people from all walks of life have been tattooed in Western society from at least the 16th century; the link with sailors and criminals really solidified during the early 19th century as tattooing spread in popularity throughout the dandy jar tars of the Georigian-era navies, and as criminologists and anthropologists began to develop eugenic theories linking external appearance to moral character.Writers like Cesare Lombroso – who measured prisoners’ heads in order to determine a criminal body type – called tattoos “the stigmata of the criminal man”, but there is no evidence, historical or contemporary, that tattooing was ever confined to a particular class or character.
The fact that even now, articles in the tabloids will declare that “tattooing is not just for sailors any more” shows that the stigma is persistent and I think it does still exist, even though it’s entirely baseless. What interests me is why it’s stuck around so long, even as journalists have been declaring it over for more than a century.
In how far are tattoos accepted in today’s Western society?
It is undoubtedly true that tattooing is more popular, and more visible, than ever before. But I don’t think “accepted” is the right word – heavy or even light tattoo coverage is still a barrier to certain classes of employment, and you only have to look at the comments left on any online news article about tattoos to see that there remains a very vocal group of people who are anti-tattoo to the point of physical disgust. But I think that’s OK – my theory as to why these feelings are so entrenched, and why they’ve stuck around so long even in the face of every new tattoo renaissance since the 1890s, is that whether or not you like or understand tattoos is principally a matter of empathy. You either understand that drive, or you don’t – it’s not a rational reaction, and certainly not one that can be changed with evidence. Lombroso was a prime example – even as he called the tattoo “the stigmata of the criminal man”, he also wrote that “if a tattooed man dies at liberty, it would only have been a matter of time before he had committed a crime”. In other words, tattoos prove you’re a criminal – and even if you’re not a criminal, you probably will become one some day soon! It’s an unfalsifiable, irrational opinion, but one you still see echoed today, one hundred years later. The Prime Minister’s wife, Samantha Cameron, has a tattoo – she’s a very classy, intelligent, rich, upper-class woman, but in many people’s eyes her having a tattoo proves she’s trashy, rather than proving tattoos are classy!
You stress the fact that tattoos originally are a very rare form of art and should be seen as that – why are tattoos art and does that clash with today’s notion?
That’s a really complex question! On a fundamental level, tattoos share enough formal qualities with other forms of art making (painting, engraving) that the metaphor “body art” is immediately understandable. Tattoos are marks on a surface, fundamentally. Tattooing is simply a medium, even though it often gets read as a message. Several writers and philosophers of art have considered tattooing in artistic terms over the centuries – people like Immanuel Kant, John Dewey and Jaques David Prown, for example – but in general, the art world has found tattooing hard to make sense of. Basically, I think the lack of art-historical attention it comes down to the ways in which a tattoo on a living body causes problems for traditional, institutional notions of what art is and should be: as an object, the tattoo lacks the spatial context of a gallery space or the temporal limits of a performance art piece; it is difficult to see how they can be bought and sold; the authorial relationship between the tattooer and the client is very hard to make sense of; and several other factors. Moreover, because of the ways tattoos have been thought about in academic literature – as markers of the person who wears them – there has been very little conceptualisation of the producer, the tattoo artist, and therefore no real sense amongst art historians that tattooing is even really an artistic practice at all.
That said, tattooist have been considering themselves as (and selling themselves as) ‘artists’ since medieval times, and in the modern era, many tattooers have made their case to be taken seriously as artists in the contemporary sense. You only have to look at business cards and shop signs from the early days of professional tattooing (the 1870s onwards, when tattoo shops opened in Europe for the first time) to see the professional identity as artists being pushed very heavily.
How can tattoos be rebellious if everybody has one?
They can’t. But not everybody has one – I think current numbers are about 30% – and there remains vehement and normative social pressure against them. So even in a world where Samantha Cameron is tattooed, tattoos still have the power to shock, particularly heavy coverage. As I said above, if you don’t understand the desire to permanently mark your body, you will always be shocked by tattoos. Even though people from all classes and all social strata – even Kings and Queens – have been tattooed, they still have a real raw appeal. But that said, I don’t think rebellion drives many people to get tattooed – at least not in the very blunt way tattooed people are often accused of doing. I don’t think anyone gets tattooed *just* to be rebellious, even if if is a small factor.
What’s the difference between the so-called “mainstream” tattoos and the underground ones which the book stresses?
Well, I’m definitely cautious about those terms, and I wouldn’t necessarily use them myself. But I think what the Forever book is doing is presenting some really, really excellent work – and the best work in any medium is always, by definition, going to be a smaller slice of the pie than the bulk. A lot of the work is at the forefront of what is a coming trend – Duncan X and Liam Sparkes and others doing work in simple black with something of a “prison” aesthetic (to cast it in vary broad terms) is right at the crest of a wave and you’ll be seeing a lot more of it over the next 5 years. These guys are stylistic pioneers in that sense.
What I really think sets apart everyone in the book from run-of-the-mill tattooers is their commitment to a particular aesthetic, and their willingness to play with the medium. These artists (and others like them) are all working within the vernacular of Western tattooing, but adding their own twists and touches to the form. There are so many great tattooers in the world now, but there are still plenty of terrible ones, so I hope the book serves as an advert to people as to just what is possible and achievable in the medium.
What’s the worst tattoo in your opinion? A tribal piece above the tailbone? Chinese signs?
Any tattoo, of anything, anywhere on the body, can be good or bad. Good tattoos are thought about (not rushed into), researched and tattooed with skill and care. A good design in the hands of a scratcher will be terrible; a very standard piece of flash or even kanji will be magnificent if tattooed by an excellent artist. Certain designs and trends come and go, but that happens in all art and culture and is not to be instantly derided. I would definitely encourage people to be bold and heterogeneous with their design choices, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting a tattoo that is stylistically of the moment, I don’t think, as long as you remember it will be on your body forever!
The two “worst” tattoos I ever saw, I wrote about in my PhD thesis. One was a woman who sold her forehead on Ebay to a casino company, and had their logo in large black letters between her eyebrows and her hairline. That one was bad not because of the design, but of the manner in which it was acquired. The second was done as part of an art project, and intended to be deliberately shocking – Santiago Sierra tattooed a line on the backs on a group of prostitutes in Mexico in exchange for wraps of heroin. The tattoo was a marker of the social conditions which gave rise to it – a very simple “design”, but a shocking, horrible, stomach-churning piece of art nonetheless.
Am vergangenen Samstag wurde das Buch “FOREVER: The New Tattoo” offiziell im GESTALTEN SPACE vorgestellt. Wie es dort aussah, habe ich euch gleich mal festgehalten: