Ink in the Name of Art

Published on 13 April 2015

Is it time to see tattoos as an art form?


Tattoos have traditionally been seen as a badge of rebellion. Think of the Japanese yakuza with their full-body suits of ink. For a long time, they were synonymous with gang affiliation, rank and loyalty. The prejudice is so entrenched that even now, most bathhouses in Japan will still refuse to admit anyone with a tattoo, even if it’s a tiny four-leaf clover! Just the act of getting tattooed — and its association with blood, pain and suffering — can be an easy allusion to the violence.

It wasn’t always this way, though. The history of tattoos began over 5,000 years ago. The term itself is derived from the Polynesian word ta, which means ‘striking something’, and the Tahitian word tatau, which means ‘to mark something’. To the Polynesians, tattooing had, and still has, significant religious and cultural meaning. They believe a person’s spiritual power or life force is displayed through their tattoo. The rest of the world is beginning to see a shift in perspective as well.

Not only have tattoos become a legitimate form of self-expression, tattooists are also evolving into bona fide artists in their own right. Like artists, they take pride in their creations and value originality. In the past, clients would walk into a tattoo parlour, flip through a folder of flash art and pick a design they liked. Tattoo artists back then were little more than ‘human photocopiers’ transferring images from paper onto skin.

The relationship between artist and canvas has intensified as customers become more sophisticated. They can now see themselves as living canvasses for artists to express and create on. The process of being inked is more intimate, and not merely a monetary exchange for services rendered. It’s a joint journey to create art.

Besides, wearing someone else’s art on your skin is infinitely more profound than simply hanging a painting in your living room. You’ve allowed yourself to be marked for life. How’s that for commitment to art?

Lionel, 39
Traditions Tattooing

“I started tattooing when I got out of the army and I’ve been at it for about 18 years now. I don’t have any art background and am mostly self-taught. I specialise in Polynesian tattoos. These tattoos have meanings and roots. They’re not just a fashion statement. I want my clients to understand what the tattoos symbolise so they won’t end up regretting it one day.

I like tattooing because it continually pushes you beyond your creative limits. Back in the ’90s, tattoos were done by Ah Bengs and the designs were all the same. Then I met local tattoo artist Elvin Yong (@elvintattoo), who became my mentor. When I saw his works, it made me want to become a better artist.

Tattooing is definitely a form of art and tattoo artists like Shane Tan (@shane_tan) and Elvin take tattooing to a new level. Their works are creative and completely original. They have a signature style, a trademark. Tattoos used to be about copying, but now it’s all about originality.”

Jen, 28
Visual Orgasm, Haji Lane

“I have no formal art background but I’ve been drawing since I was young. A lot of people come to me for handwriting-style tattoos or for my original watercolour-style pieces. To me, tattooing is definitely an art form. What else can you call it besides art?

A lot of what people are choosing to put on their skin is actually already considered art on paper. The only difference is that tattoos are permanent and people wear it on their skin. People are also inking more artistic things like poems, quotes or geometric designs. It’s all art. I believe it’s possible that tattoos can some day be accepted as a proper art form. I have clients who are doctors and lawyers. Almost everyone these days has a small tattoo somewhere.”

Flee, 42
Traditions Tattooing

“I’m actually quite new to the tattoo scene. I’ve been apprenticing for about a year. Before this, I was a full-time commercial illustrator for almost 15 years. The difference for me is that drawing on skin is permanent so that’s a whole new ball game with a completely different learning curve.

I’m not bothered by titles. You can label what I do anything — artist, illustrator or tattooist. Most important to me is a need for my works to speak for themselves. People are coming around to regarding tattoo as art. There’s still a little stigma, but it’s no longer the mark of a gang. Clients are also putting their own ideas into the work. It’s a form of their own expression and is deeply personal.”

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