“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” — John Keats (1795-1821)
“Of the hundreds of tattoo photos I receive in a given week, if there are three or four that merit sharing with my readers, I’d be happy,” confesses Bob Baxter, editor of Skin&Ink magazine. “The rest are usually second-rate, badly drawn, crudely colored, ineptly shaded…” Baxter’s confession is especially startling when you realize why the tattoos have been submitted for consideration in the first place – the senders thought they were good enough to be published in an acclaimed and highly regarded publication devoted to tattoos.
Everyone wants a ‘good’ tattoo, but let’s be honest, an alarming number fall short of the mark. Judging from the phenomenal growth of the tattoo removal business, it would seem that many tattoo owners agree. When you add up the regret, expense and discomfort of the prolonged removal process, you have to wonder why more forethought didn’t go into planning and preparing for the tattoo in the first place — because contrary to popular belief, people with tattoos really do care what others think of them.
“We here at Skin&Ink wish that people would be more educated as to what makes a good tattoo,” says Baxter, “but, unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.”
A 2004 Harris Interactive poll suggests that half of all 18-to-29-year-olds has at least one tattoo.
And 17% of them grow to regret it.
Apparently, what the tattoo industry needs is a discussion of how a tattoo works best. That’s right, ‘works’, ‘performs’, ‘keeps going and going and going’ through the evolution of our many hidden and often contradictory selves. Is it good enough for a tattoo to look terrific? Or be acclaimed as ‘art’ and win awards? Many tattoos come cloaked in mythical or personal significance, yet lack staying power, just the same.
So, what makes a good tattoo? Can we define a good tattoo?
“To the objective observer,” says Bob Baxter, “determining what makes a good tattoo is often based on a knowledge or eye for balance, shape, symmetry, color, technique, placement and various other subtle and not so subtle artistic criteria. To the wearer, all the artistic guidelines take a back seat to emotion, personal meaning, self-gratification, allegiance to the artist and refusal to recognize that their tattoo might possibly be bad art, badly done and grotesquely rendered.”
To Baxter, a ‘good tattoo’ depends upon the skill and artistic eye of the tattoo artist. “But what makes a tattoo good?” he asks. “The eye of the beholder, that’s who.”
That this may be true to some degree is serious cause for alarm. At the very least, reconsideration.
My eye, for instance, has changed radically since I was a young man on the verge of life. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that I’m considering a tattoo, a major piece, a fantastical beast from an ancient culture about which I know little. My eye beholds this magical creature and sees the best tattoo design ever. But who can trust the fickle eye? The flesh is weak and many things attract us that prove unhealthy in the long run. Furthermore, we humans have a tendency to keep growing new insights and desires, so it’s possible that one day I’ll have grown to think outside the box the tattoo came in. ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever?’ – sorry, Keats, I’m not taking your word for it. For this tattoo of mine, I need a guarantee of extended shelf life. Some hard-nosed criteria are what’s needed, and failing that, some powerful anecdotal evidence that it’s even possible to conjure up a ‘good’ tattoo.
During 2007, it was calculated that Americans would have 100,000 tattoo removal treatments, according to Catherine A. Kniker, a senior V.P. for Candela, a laser manufacturer.
Photo by Justice Howard
It can be discouraging, I know, to deconstruct something as close to the heart as a tattoo, but more and more we hear that the price of ignorance is a lifetime of regret. While we’re fresh and strong, let’s confront the question of tattoo as ‘art’. Must a tattoo, to be good, be art? Do tattoos even qualify as art? Fortunately, we can dispense with this question quickly because: a) the envelope has been pushed, ignored, and graphitised over to where, today, we include anything. Artists claim they’re working from their ‘inner necessity’ and that’s it, Ta-da! It is art. Even if it’s ‘non-art’, it’s art. But much more importantly, b) tattoos are art because Donald Richie says it’s so.
Donald Richie, author of The Japanese Tattoo, is an American commentator on Japanese culture for over fifty years, and who is understandably speaking from the pinnacle of tattoo art when he wades into this discussion. “A good tattoo combines technical skill and valid import,” Richie says. “Most tattoos are bad because they are sloppy and do not mean anything. As for tattoos being an art – yes. Remember that Alfred Whitehead * said that “art is the imposing of a pattern on experience and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.”
* British mathematician and philosopher (1861-1947)
What is a tattoo after all but the imposing of a pattern (literally) on one’s (corporeal) existence? And our enjoyment of it, the repeated recognition – repeated and repeated and repeated. A merely decorative tattoo, however, runs the risk of its familiarity breeding contempt, hence Richie’s admonition that a tattoo has to have meaning.
“Beauty that simply honours surfaces becomes superficial,” says Ramon Kubicek, art and literature professor in Vancouver, Canada. “Decorative work has its place, but in art, the disposition is always to look for meaning. Unless there is some dynamic in the work composed of contrary elements, the experienced viewer loses interest.”
‘Meaning’, then, makes it art, elevating it to a status above that of decoration or fashion. Jean Cocteau, the late novelist and filmmaker, would probably agree. Here’s how he once differentiated between art and fashion: “Art produces ugly things which frequently become beautiful with time, (while) fashion…produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time.”
Art sounds impressive, and body decoration has been a passion since ancient times, but in all honesty, most tattoos seem to have less to do with art and beauty than with a state of mind, an ‘outward expression of an inner being’, says pioneering female tattooist, Vyvyn Lazonga. The problem is, we’re a chorus of beings, each one taking random turns singing solo. My tattoo will be required to work well enough to please and appease these very many moods. That’s right, ‘work’.
Works of art aren’t generally thought of as workhorses, but there is a discipline in which art performs a definite function. It’s called ‘applied art’. Designers of glassware and guitars, of sofas and saucepans and carbon-zero architecture, they’re all applying laws of design and aesthetics to objects of everyday use. Unlike ‘fine art’, which serves only to stimulate us aesthetically and intellectually, ‘applied art’ places function first. Even if it’s only to ‘look cool’, as tattoo historian Chuck Eldridge suggests, that’s it’s purpose, nevertheless. If we can regard a tattoo in practical terms, then we may have another way of evaluating our tattoo. How well does our tattoo work for us?
The most blatant example of ‘tattoo as commodity’ would be the Japanese who believes his extensively tattooed pelt will fetch a small fortune when he dies – a kind of life insurance policy for the wife and kids – except that the trade in human skin is both illegal and out of vogue. A few art buffs in Canada are currently acquiring tattoos as a kind of investment. Having replicas of fine art tattooed on their person, they’re receiving actual prints as gifts from the original artist, whom they’ve flattered by their tattoo commitment. It’s becoming a tradition of sorts. Whatever the tattoo cost, the print might one day be worth ten times as much. While the economics are impressive, little else seems to add up.