Visual artists are incorporating tattoo imagery and techniques into their art, and gaining mainstream exposure for it


Visual artists are not only dropping tattoo imagery and techniques into their art, but are also gaining mainstream exposure for it. If only Dahl could have witnessed the opening of Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s installation at the Louvre this year, which featured a tattooed Swiss man named Tim Steiner. Steiner, or “Tattoo Tim,” wears on his back a black-and-gray Madonna positioned beneath a Mexican skull and pink roses, flanked by bats and swallows and anchored by Japanese waves, all referencing classic tattoo styles and imagery. Tim had been purchased in 2008 by the German collector Rik Reinking for 150,000 euros. Steiner’s contract requires that he exhibit himself three times a year, and when he dies, his skin—varnished or not—is to be given over to his buyer.

Delvoye learned to tattoo in the early ‘90s, practicing first on pigskins acquired from slaughterhouses, and then on the skin of live pigs, which he began exhibiting in 1997. “I hated the idea that I would have assistants who would master a skill that I wouldn’t master,” he says. So he practiced. He chose pigs because they provided a large work surface and because, as low-status animals, they served as ironic vehicles for the grand symbolism typically accorded to tattoos: “This is my dog, my father who died, my beloved son, my principles—I love Jesus, I love rock ‘n’ roll, I believe in the U.S. army. All these beliefs are expressed in tattoos,” says Delvoye.

 After its 2010 release, the documentary Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World by Emiko Omori was screened at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Last year, the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive hosted a serial video showing participants in Shelley Jackson’s “Skin,” a short story tattooed word by word on volunteers around the globe. The Honolulu Art Museum’s 2012–13 show “Tattoo Honolulu” features ten contemporary Hawaiian tattooists.

Galleries, too, are awakening to skin art. Painter Shawn Barber’s portraits of tattooed people (many of them tattooists) were shown at Joshua Liner in New York this past summer. Sundaram Tagore Gallery represents the Korean artist Kim Joon, who makes computer-generated images of beautiful, often intertwined bodies imprinted with abstract tattoo designs in saturated colors, and applies them to porcelain objects.

Tattoos are appearing not just in the halls of high culture, but also as commodities walking out of them. In the 1970s, the artist and former tattooist Ruth Marten, a pioneer of New York conceptual tattooing, tried to persuade New Museum founder Marcia Tucker (then a curator at the Whitney Museum) to commission pieces on collectors’ skin. Tucker, whom Marten had tattooed, knew the idea was ahead of its time and nixed it. But now artist-tattooists are doing just that. Both Dr. Lakra and Delvoye have tattooed curators, collectors, and gallery employees, sometimes in galleries or at art fairs.

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