Ancient Ink: Stories About Tattoos, Aging, and Community

Ancient Ink: Stories About Tattoos, Aging, and Community

Mark Perrott’s ongoing photo series captures the essence of aging, tattoos and asks, what happens when the inside is on the outside?

There are a lot of different forms of stigma associated with being tattooed, and one of the more banal, lower digs non-tattooed people make is, “what about when you’re old?” It’s a question often asked with huge disdain, as if, perhaps, the questioner himself has somehow managed to avoid aging. Western culture is simply terrified of aging, and any representation of older folks with tattoos, piercings, body modifications is, quite frankly, its own slice of revolutionary.

“Ancient Ink is a way of continuing a project I began in 1979 at Nick Bubash’s tattoo shop in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” says Mark Perrott, photographer and mastermind behind the Ancient Ink series. “I watched, for 40 years, the folks that I first photographed grow old, and live through changes, and add to their ink, and I got really curious about what happens at 65 and beyond when you’ve lived that, and you’ve lived the work. Are you still inspired by new work, are you comfortable with the old work? What are the stories that are connected? So it’s about telling stories about getting old.”

Mark and his assistant have been traveling to conventions, posting ads in newspapers, and visiting tattoo shops in an effort to find more tattooed subjects willing to be photographed with their ink on display. “I wish there was a way to find the folks who interest me a lot, easily. But there isn’t. They’ve disappeared, they’ve been absorbed by the landscape,” Perrott says. 

Perrott has been uniquely positioned as an outsider/insider to the tattoo community for years, and he’s witnessed some of the largest changes in the industry up close and personal. “My friend Nick Bubash has called this time ‘The Renaissance of Tattoo.’ He says, ‘I’m living the Renaissance of Tattoo.’ Now is the renaissance at its peak? Is this it? Or will it continue?” Perrot questions. “It’s such a mystery to me about where it’s going, from where it began. In the span of my lifetime it has changed direction and intensity and diversity and everything, from outsider to super insider.”

It’s true: what was once deviant is now fetish object, and what was once outsider is indeed now highly insider. The taboo has transformed, and the community and the industry has changed constantly from year to year, growing in unique ways that only art on skin can. What does it all even mean?

“There’s no way to categorize and stereotype, and come out with a satisfactory outcome,” Perrott says. “People do things for their own, special, mostly unknown reasons. They can’t explain even to me or to you ‘why I got that tattoo.’ I love the spirit of that. That literally I’ll never know. So I just keep making pictures. That seems enough right now. I’m happy to still be making pictures. My pictures have changed the way I look at people.”

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You can get a look at Perrott’s pictures yourself, over at the Erie Art Museum. Ancient Ink is slated to show this summer, opening June 23 this year and running through to next year.

If you’re over 65, and interested in being photographed for this series, Mark will be at the Baltimore Tattoo Convention on the prowl for more willing tattooed subjects. Find him there or contact him through his website.

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