I don’t really follow any of the big Instagram accounts that repost tattoo pictures, but they pop up in my feed from time to time and I see some of the more popular posts. Lately I have seen a few posts that have got me thinking about the evolution of the tattoo industry, the aim of the IG accounts and also what makes a good tattoo.
I am gonna be blunt here, I have seen some pics lately that to my eyes, are frankly shitty tattoos. No redeeming features at all, technically or artistically. It kinda feels like no one is prepared to call out the emperor for being naked. But, I got thinking and it is not quite as simple as that…
Firstly, and most obviously, the big Instagram accounts are not really interested in what is good. They are interested in generating likes and comments, controversy and shock value. Not all of them are like this, but a lot are.
Secondly is something I am extrapolating from personal experience. I do not put a tattoo picture on my Instagram account thinking “this is amazing, perfect and everyone is gonna love it”. I, like most artistic people, am riddled with doubt about my own work. The best I can hope for is that I don’t hate it. If there is a wobble on a line which some Instagram fuckwit loves to point out, I am already more than aware of it and probably debated posting the picture in the first place because of it. I know there are some terrible tattooists who do think they are brilliant, but I would imagine that most are just putting up the best work they can do. If it isn’t technically brilliant but everyone loves it, what should they do? Take it down? Apologise? Of course not, you just do the best you can, post it (because you kinda have to in today’s social media world) and then see what people think.
The next thing I got to thinking about was the evolution of the tattoo industry. In the last 20-30 years there has been an exponential growth in the quality of tattoos out there. I can remember, when we started Modern Body Art in 1999, there were literally a handful of really good artists in the whole of the UK, and what was considered good back then would be average by today’s standards. That is not to take anything away from the front runners of the time, they were amazing and led the way, but this progression and evolution happens in all things.
What has happened has real parallels with the fine art world, or the music world. There is a massive rise in technical ability, to levels that are almost unbelievable, followed by a reaction against that. Once people had really nailed portrait painting and realism, there was perhaps nowhere to go but react against that, which lead to expressionism or abstract painting. Whenever music got too technical and perfect, there was a reaction against that towards a rawer and more emotive sound; think first of punk reacting to prog rock, and then grunge reacting to the shredders of glam rock and metal. (Whether music continues to evolve like this is another subject. Maybe the internet has changed everything and allowed it to be much more fragmented now? Today you can happily exist without ever even being aware of the mainstream.)
I feel we might be seeing this in the tattoo world. A few years ago tattooing got so technical it was mind blowing. All the biggest names were doing super realistic colour or black and grey portraits, or massive scale work that was technically so clean. Now, it seems like there has been a reaction against that and we are seeing deliberately imperfect tattoos. Either technically imperfect, rough lines or scratchy shading; or artistically imperfect, simple drawings that are far from anatomically correct. There are some tattoo artists who are very popular on Instagram doing very simple and sometimes rough little tattoos that I don’t think would have been given the time of day ten years ago.
Now, who is to say one is better than the other? Is technical ability more important than emotion? Does a tattoo even need to be technical to be good? If a tattoo is technically perfect but the customer hates it, does that make it a better tattoo than an imperfect one that the customer loves? Some of the most technically perfect and talented musicians make some of the most boring music. Could it end up being the same for tattooing? I honestly dont know.
The concept of bespoke, custom tattoos is a relatively new one. I am proud that Modern Body Art was the first custom only studio in Birmingham, and that we were at the forefront of a movement that is now ubiquitous. If we are being honest, it was really tattoo TV shows that popularised the idea that the customer can walk into a studio with a big back (sob) story and list of what they want. The problem is that like everything on the television, all is not what it appears. It is common knowledge in the tattoo world that the customers on such programs are hand picked long before they walk into a studio apparently off the street (to talk to an artist who happens to be sat with nothing to do). Any boring, bad or unworkable ideas are filtered out early in the process. Lately things have become even more detached from reality as complicated cover ups are shown fresh and looking amazing, when anyone with any experience of tattooing will know that they will not heal like that, and that old tattoo will be making an unfortunate reappearance.
If I am honest, I don’t think this way of working is always producing the best tattoos for people. People tend to come into Modern Body Art, or to me personally and give me an idea of what they want. They generally have an idea in their head about what it is going to look like and I set about and try and recreate that image for them. Most of the time the idea is great and the customer is fine. But sometimes the idea is a bit generic, or sometimes the idea is actually not very good. Sometimes the idea is fine but it is so prescriptive that there is really no room for any artistic input at all.
The artists Komar and Melamid did a show called “People’s Choice” where they produced art based on what people really liked – or in fact didn’t like, all based from surveys. What people liked was unfortunately bland, middle-of-the-road, generic crap. Is there a moral here for the tattoo world? (You can see all the paintings here.)
When someone has an idea that is bad, or boring, what do you do? Do you tell them that it is terrible? What then? They go away and think that you are an arrogant arse, or maybe they think less of Modern Body Art. Maybe they will go somewhere else and find someone to do exactly what they want and it will probably – but admittedly not definitely – be average at best. Maybe they are happy with it, or maybe they will eventually realise that it isn’t actually a good tattoo (although, if they are happy with it, who is to say it isn’t a good tattoo? That is a whole other subject).
I do sometimes turn down a tattoo if it isn’t something I think I won’t be able to do well, but am I getting ideas above my station? Should I do whatever the customer asks for, and just do the best I can. It is a job after all and I have to earn a living. I am not sure any customer really wants to get tattooed by someone who is only doing the job for the money though? Let alone by an artist who doesn’t believe it is going to be any good when it is finished!
So what is the solution? I am not sure I have one. In the old days (not really that long ago), you just picked a pre-drawn design from the flash sheets on the wall. Maybe that had more merit than we realised at the time?