Replacing the stark white walls of galleries are the bodies of humans across the globe. Becoming the new host for pieces of fine art, tattoo collectors are participating in an evolution of the industry. The idea that ink has to be in the form of nautical iconography or tribal rite is now antique; contemporary tattooists are breaking barriers and long held ideologies of what a tattoo must look like to be considered quality. From famous paintings to illustrious sculptures, and even acclaimed films, fine art tattoos have become an unstoppable trend. This proves not only that tattooing itself should be, and is, a highly respected visual form, but that art history will always remain relevant, regardless of the medium or age. It’s no wonder, really, since tattooing has always been at the core of human expression. From Otzi to the current mainstream, there isn’t one culture or country that hasn’t seen strands of tattooing.
Modern Art and Tattooing
Tattoo styles like Watercolor and Realism have obvious ties to past art movements, and even Chicano tattoos can thank the revered motifs of Roman Catholic relics for some of its design aspects. But there are many tattooists who are inspired by modern masters, and even current emerging visual artists who are inspired by tattoo art. Agnieszka Nienartowicz, Elena Pancorbo, Chris Guest, and Cheyenne Randall are all well-known for their incorporation of body art into their paintings.
It goes both ways...again, perhaps because tattooing is such an ancient human art form, tattoo artists are not only inspired by modern art, but modern artists are inspired by tattooists as well. Then there are also the clients who request certain aspects of life that they adore. This is quite normal for a tattoo; we get our most beloved passions and subjects put onto our skin...and, of course, that would include famous artists living and long past. The tattoos below are perfect examples of this: tattoos inspired by Marina Abramovic’s moving performance art pieces, Robert Longo’s massive charcoal renderings, as well as Yayoi Kusama’s intense oeuvre of strange and surreal creations. These are things that inspire us, that capture our imaginations. Modern art forms continue to blur boundaries, and trends seem to head in a trajectory that wholly embraces tattooing as a compatriot to fine art movements.
Expressionism and Avant Garde Aesthetics
Perhaps some of the most influential art movements on avant garde tattooing aesthetics are Expressionism, Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and Surrealism. These could each easily be spoken about in length on their own, but the impact they’ve all made on contemporary tattooing is similar.
Expressionism began in Germany in the early 20th century. Social strife and discord before World War I were a large part in why artists of this particular movement started to stray from perfect depictions of reality to portrayals that more accurately described emotional turmoil. Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Egon Schiele’s visceral portraits of prostitutes, and Otto Dix’s unending contribution of brutal pre and post-war illustrations have all inspired modern tattoo artists such as Servadio, Pauline Tattoo and more.
Filled with more light, impasto textures, and usually a concentration on happier subjects, Impressionism includes painters such as Monet, Van Gogh, and Matisse. All of these artists have been perfectly rendered in fine art tattoos, and are continually heralded in popular culture as the epitome of pure beauty. Seoul based tattooists of Studio by Sol are often great representations of the trend in replicating famous works of art, as are Edit Paints, Goldy Z, and Deborah Genchi. These tattooists, as well as others, also often get requests for reproductions of Dali or Magritte paintings and other surrealist subject matter.
Abstract Expressionism is another art movement that has had particularly notable influence on avante garde aesthetics. Turning from the bold black lines, limited color palette and flash designs of Traditional tattooing, many illustrative tattooists can be linked to Abstract Expressionism due to their use of color, line, and design in an effort to evoke emotion through abstraction rather than concrete referential imagery. Ori Vishnia and Maison Metamose are both extremely intune with the current client need for a new visual vernacular that more directly describes their existence. It’s part of why tattooing continues to evolve in this direction: tattoo artists are tapping into historical art movements that hold poignant power of viewers, while clients and tattoo collectors are searching for tattooists who represent and articulate those art movements into permanent body modifications.
Art Nouveau and Neo Traditional
Gustav Klimt is, no doubt, one of the most popular past painters to have his work reproduced as fine art tattoos. Pieces like The Kiss have been replicated time and time again in a multitude of creative ways and, at times, with such perfection that it’s awe inspiring. Klimt is well known for his work within the Art Nouveau movement, an aesthetic which has deeply influenced the tattooing style of Neo Traditional. The graceful design aspects, as well as the addition of a reverence for natural beauty and Japanese principles of art make Art Nouveau, and Neo Traditional, full of art history connections...it’s part of why the genre is so captivating and powerful. Creations that resonate with us often stick to tried and true philosophies of eye catching constructions. Symbolism, an artistic movement that happened concurrent with Art Nouveau, often happens to show up within the same context or works of the period, and can also be said to have a significance within modern tattooing. The Lucien Victor reproduction by ColdGray, below, is a perfect example of this.
The Relevance of the Renaissance
When art history is mentioned, you probably think of the Renaissance, Romanticism, or the Greek statues which make up Classical art. And these particular moments of the past certainly have a huge effect, especially on many Realism tattoo artists who focus primarily on the wings of angels, tragic depictions of passionate ecstasies so perfectly shaped in the marble of Bernini’s sculptures, or the cerebral sacred geometry of Da Vinci’s personal sketches. Whether it is Josh Lin’s use of Roman and Greek sculptures to depict Venus and Cupid with a backdrop of the celestial zodiac, or Inal Bersekov’s stunning rendition of Ludovico Pogliaghi’s relief sculpture Ascension of Jesus embellishing the doors of the Duomo di Milano, there are layers upon layers of art history to be found here.
Even Pawel Indulski’s tattoo interpreting a Roberto Ferri painting harks back to the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Roberto Ferri, a modern master of oil paint current who resides in Italy, is deeply inspired by Caravaggio who lived during the age when chiaroscuro was at the height of its relevance. From the flourishing fashion of tattooing in the mainstream we find a wealth of references that dates back to hundreds of fascinating years. Like a connective web, each of these creations supports its own foundation with the creations of others. Though many people like to think that everything has been done already within fine art, we continue to see what we think of as “art” developing and expanding to include so much more than we normally label as such.
Ukiyo-e, Irezumi, Ero Guro and Anime
Of course, for those who are admirers of Irezumi, Japanese tattooing, it’s no secret that many of the pieces within that style are based on Ukiyo-e woodblock prints reproduced within the pages of the Chinese classic, “Water Margins” or “Outlaws of the Marsh”. Perhaps why Ukiyo-e was so influential was not only the powerful imagery, but also the fact that the movement lasted from the 17th century through the 19th. Almost 200 years of output that spanned topics such as samurais avenging their brothers, to geisha contemplating the beauty of a simple bloom. And although Ukiyo-e did eventually fade out, it has continued to affect modern Japanese tattooing. Not surprisingly Ukiyo-e can also be seen within New School tattooing due to the style continually using anime, comic books, graphic novels, and video games as conceptual design fodder. Most of the material mentioned has its roots in Japanese culture, which includes Ukiyo-e. Ero Guro, another trend within lovers of Japanese aesthetics and subjects, also has its foundations within that particular art movement. From, seemingly, one cultural tide comes several more streams of thought, style, and artistic output that develop into further modes of expression depending on artistic proclivity or perspective.
Fine Art Tattoos: Progressing Tattoo Culture
Art history is always relevant because it is a breeding ground for new ideas. Artist pick and choose, they pull together concepts in unique ways, they see with a different eye the past art movements and bring them to the present in ways that are new and relevant. Past art movements were born through particular people being present during particular social, economical, political and philosophical circumstances...so it’s no wonder that these past moments can be made fresh with modern people during modern circumstances.
Again, it isn’t just artists churning the wheels of a progressive tattoo art form. It’s also the clients, the tattoo collectors, who are looking for modes of visual expression that resonate authentically within. Though Traditional and Japanese are the strongholds of tattoo culture, they cannot possibly represent every single person’s natural taste or personal voice, hence the necessity for more available aesthetics.
But perhaps what is most important is the idea that contemporary tattooing, no matter how much it borrows, reproduces or reinvents art history, is evolving and progressing in fundamental directions. It is replacing the hallowed halls of museums, the exclusive spaces of stylish galleries, with the skin of humans who are embodying the new fine art. With tattoos, art is no longer a means of commodity; tattooing is an art movement that cannot be bought and sold like a painting or sculpture. Nor can it grow dusty and unused in the corner of a historical landmark. It lives with us, dies with us, and progresses because of us.