Still lifes with bloody surgical instruments on one wall and pallid skulls on the other, Sacred Tattoo is currently home to profound and grotesque oil paintings by Jon Clue and Nick Baxter. They have created an uncomfortable yet captivating ambiance inside this downtown Manhattan Gallery in their latest exhibition, Ritual Magic and Blood Magic MMXVI.
"I’ve had the gallery ever since December of 2009," said Kevin Wilson, the shop's founder. "It started just as a side project. I wanted to pull the fine art world and the subcultural aspect of it into the tattoo world." Since the gallery's advent, numerous renowned and lesser known visual artists have showcased their work there. "We didn’t really think it would take off the way it has over the years, and I’m very humbled by all the artists who jumped on board," he continued. "Work by Shepard Fairey, Marshall Arisman, and a whole bunch of others has been shown here. It’s been really cool to see how far it’s come in such a short amount of time."
"It’s not a traditional setting, so we don’t have to play by conventional gallery rules." — Kevin Wilson
“It’s not a traditional setting, so we don’t have to play by conventional gallery rules,” Wilson said. Other mainstream gallery owners are often baffled at how Sacred, being a tattoo studio, consigns such astounding artists. Part of the reason the gallery can host alternative shows is that the income from their tattoo operation keeps the art space afloat. While other galleries in NYC typically only display work by established visual artists, and are beholden to hosting shows that will make rent, Sacred is able to hold more unorthodox exhibitions.
“Most other galleries want to just play it safe; they only want stuff that is guaranteed to sell, and I don’t like that aspect of things," said Wilson. "Whenever an artist approaches us about putting up their work, the first thing I tell them is ‘step out of your comfort zone. I want you to do something that you’ve never attempted before and allow people to see something different,’ instead of looking at it from a monetary standpoint.”
Sacred has put on some compelling and intriguing shows and events. Wilson recounted when they invited Dave Devries to do an exhibition from his Monster Engine project. “He took kids' drawings of monsters and then turned them into Marvel-style monsters,” said Wilson. “Then, we held an exhibition in which the children’s illustrations were showcased next to his paintings.”
They’ve also hosted numerous drawing workshops with alternative models, like burlesque performers and tattoo collectors. These seminars are geared toward accommodating people at all artistic skill levels, novices and experts alike. Sacred even has an upcoming workshop in May with Chris Guest, a painter from London, whose work Wilson described as "the intersection of Nikko Hurtado and Shawn Barber." (Sorry, artists — the workshop is already sold out.)
Because Clue also tattoos at Sacred, he was able to give us some enlightening insight into the paintings that make up Ritual Magic — his half of the two-part exhibition. "For me, ritual is more of a product of being obsessed with work, or realizing a vision that’s in my head and forming it into something that’s tangible — that I can actually see — to get as close to that vision as possible,” he said. “The rituals are part of getting there.” Making paintings and tattoos is a deeply spiritual undertaking for him, similar to a ceremony or solemn rite.
"Like with skulls, I am drawn to their texture and shape, and of course, it’s what we are, you know?" — Jon Clue
“This sort of dark imagery is something I’ve been chasing since I was a little kid," said Clue. "It’s always been a kind of obsession for me." In both his fine art and tattoos, you can see how this sort of gruesome iconography has been a wellspring of inspiration. Most of his oil paintings in the exhibition are studies of the grotesque in real life. "Like with skulls, I am drawn to their texture and shape, and of course, it’s what we are, you know?" he said. "A lot of these paintings even take reference from the catacombs in Sicily, because all of my family is from Palermo."
Clue sees his artwork in various mediums such as tattooing and painting as integral to each other. "I couldn’t do one without the other. Painting helps me explore things in tattooing that I was afraid to push too far. Sometimes I’ll tattoo something and become so excited about the subject matter that I want to make a painting out of it and vice versa," he said. "Other times I’ll paint something and realize that I can apply it to tattooing somehow." It's interesting how different modes of art can act as muses for one another. In cases like Clue's, it signifies that creativity and inspiration are mutually generative.
Across from Clue's paintings in the exhibit, hang Nick Baxter's jaw-dropping pieces from his project Blood Rituals MMXVI. As the title implies, it’s organized around the theme of the very stuff that courses through our veins. Each one of his oil paintings is a still life, and they feature numerous medical oddities paired with beakers, vials, and tubes full of blood.
The most captivating part of these astounding works of art is that Baxter actually had his phlebotomist draw his own blood to use as inspiration for this series. The way he renders his own crimson body-fluid is incredibly vivid and lifelike. If you're squeamish, especially at the sight of blood, then these paintings will viscerally affect you. Some of the streams, pools, and droplets look as if they were freshly drawn… by a syringe.
Because he used his own blood as a reference point, many of these paintings can also be considered self-portraits.
The symbolism of Baxter's highly realistic still lifes is quite profound. Because he used his own blood as a reference point, many of these paintings can also be considered self-portraits. The assortment of objects in each one add up to express provocative and multifaceted meaning. For instance, what is a viewer to make of the combination of an old book, bloody tubing, a candle, and a straight razor? Though it's difficult to account for the subtext of images such as a brain next to a broken loaf of bread, when you start to interpret the ontological implications of these paintings, their significance and complexity becomes glaringly apparent, almost like an open wound.
Together, these two tattooists’ oil paintings have transformed Sacred’s gallery into a remarkably sublime space, one which embodies the power of the grotesque in visual art, drawing mankind’s mutability as well as mortality into focus as sharp as a scalpel.
If you want to see more paintings as well as body art by Clue and Baxter, make sure to peruse their Instagrams. Check out Baxter getting his blood drawn and painting in the video above as well. Here's a link to Sacred Tattoo's website, so you can keep up with their future events and installations. Head over to their gallery to see Ritual Magic and Blood Rituals MMXVI if you’re in or nearby NYC. The show's over at the end of this month, and it would be a great way to spend some of your time off for the holidays.