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Giving Form to the Intangible: Meaning and Transformation in Tattooing

Giving Form to the Intangible: Meaning and Transformation in Tattooing

Stories6 min Read

Many tattoos have meaning, but each one is unique. In this article we look at how getting tattooed gives form to the intangible.

The notion of Western tattooing now being ‘not just for sailors and bikers’ that has been perpetuated by media headlines for decades is not true, because, in fact, it never was just for sailors and bikers. Art historian Anna Felicity Friedman points out that since the 1850's, tourists have been traveling to the Far East to obtain small souvenir tattoos (2015, p.20), which included Victorian aristocracy (Cawley, 2014). That withstanding, although tattooing has been a part of Western culture for decades, it is feasible to suggest that it has made the transition into the sphere of popular culture. 

As members of tattooing community, collectors, enthusiasts, and tattooists, active participants with the content of Tattoodo and other tattoo media platforms, we tend to be interested in the work that is refreshingly novel, beautifully executed, and creatively composed. Some tattooists may be fortunate insomuch as they are able to function as what is referred to by Sanders and Vail (2008) as ‘fine art’ tattooists - tattooists who are able to be “selective about the images they create and the clients with whom they will work” (p.19). 

Names on wrists, infinity symbols, and band logos contribute to the bread-and-butter of many tattooist’s income. Subject matter of such a nature can be considered of equal validity on recognition that tattooing is a medium, that can be adopted using the approach of a visual artist, just as much as it can a craftsperson. There is no hierarchy; they’re just using the same medium and doing different things, depending on what the client asks for. 

There are many academic literature and media articles on tattooing as a singular phenomenon, but there is clearly a distinction between your mother having an initial tattooed on her ankle, and your sister having a Japanese backpiece. It is the medium that is shared. We as members of the tattoo community may sometimes favor the latter example, as there’s a powerful aspect to tattoos of such a nature. But there is a unique romance that is present in the medium of the tattoo and evident in some of the less creatively engaging work – the transformative ability for the tattoo to bring something intangible into a material embodied form. In some cases, the finished piece is perhaps less important than the process of having obtained it. 

In order to elucidate, the following example from my own tattooing practice may be of benefit. The black linework tattoo was completed in the early stages of my tattooing career, for a young man who held a lot of pride in being an older sibling to his 7-year-old sister, who he said was very important to him. His sister had produced drawings of various subject matter, that are in keeping with conventional visual attributes and naivety of child-like drawings. The client sought out a tattoo of his sisters drawing to be produced above his knee cap, with as little deviation from the original image in the tattoo as possible. This meant overlapping broken lines, varied line thickness and depth, and many other factors that would no doubt make countless of our tattooing forefathers turn in their graves.

In the example given above, it can be argued that the finished article, the tattoo itself, is not necessarily as important as the process of obtaining it for the client. Had the source image of the tattoo above not been produced by the client’s sister, and instead by someone with whom he was unfamiliar, the significance of the piece would shift. Rather than be indicative of the clients sincere and sentimental appreciation of his relationship with his sister at a particular moment in time, so much so that he is willing to honor for the remainder of his embodied existence, the tattoo may simply be a weird talking point, devoid of context or significance. Had the image been drawn by me, a supplemental figure in the process, rather than his sister, the client’s relationship with the piece would be very different.

In both cases, it is not the tattoo as a piece of well executed visual art that the client desires, but rather the utilization of the unique properties of tattooing to take something outside of the world, and bring it into material embodied form. Discussion of ‘meaningful tattoos’ is common, but as Sullivan (2009) points out, “there is no 'objective meaning': the tattoo will generate different meanings depending on a range of factors…” (p. 132). 

Some of the tattoos discussed or displayed here may not be the kind of work that tattooists might typically include in their portfolio to show off their skills, while others may utilize the style to embody the same sort of significance. But as mentioned earlier, that’s not always the point, as the tattooist’s role is to serve the client, not the self. As tattooing’s clientele expands, the demand for different kinds of work changes too, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  

Written by Adam McDade, Junior Tattooist at Triplesix Studios and a AHRC NPIF Funded PhD Student in Design at the University of Sunderland, UK. Edited and curated by Justine Morrow.

Adam McDade
Written byAdam McDade

Adam McDade is a junior tattooist at Triplesix Studios, Sunderland, and AHRC NPIF-funded PhD research student in Design at the University of Sunderland. He did his first tattoo in December 2017, on Triplesix Studios founder, Bez, and has been gradually tattooing more frequently since. Prior to tattooing, Adam gained his undergraduate and masters degree in Illustration and design and worked as a freelance illustrator for a multitude of clients. Adam is interested in implementing his illustration background into his tattooing practice, and hopes to specialise in illustrative, psychedelic, and far-east inspired tattooing. His PhD research is titled, ‘Beyond the Epidermis: A practical investigation into contemporary Western tattooing’. Adam adopts a multi-method methodology that utilises his tattooing practice and autoethnographic reflections on practice in order to investigate the practical process of cultural production of tattooing, and the role of the contemporary Western tattooist. Adams website can be found at: IG: @adammcdadeillustration

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