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?