by Jane Hudson
Millennial-age Indians are embracing religious and spiritual tattoos, with this unique form of expression increasingly being recognized as ‘wearable body art’ across India’s busiest cities. Not everyone may be able to afford a Picasso or a Dali, but anyone can wear the imagery from their favorite films, animations and novels on their body as a way to express their fundamental values. The artistic value of tattoos has waxed and waned throughout history until reaching its current status as walking art. In India, tattoos were used for diverse reasons – including art, the imitation of embroidery, and to ward off evil.
Art, Rank, and Punishment
The earliest tattoo we know of was that of a mummy who lived in the Alps in the 4th millennium BC (his tattoo comprised a series of dots and lines). In some cultures (e.g. the ancient Chinese culture), tattoos were used to ‘brand’ prisoners. Today, they are seen as quite the contrary – a symbol of freedom and individualism that many are embracing with zeal. We are not alone in viewing tattooing as an art form.
The ancient Egyptians seem to have used them with a purely decorative purpose and initially, body art was only worn by women. In other societies, tattooing was seen as a way to mark rank and title. For example, in the Samoan culture, the skill is commonly passed on from father to son.
Tattoos in Modern Art
Today, tattoos have reached the apotheosis of their creativity. Artists such as Nikko Hurtado – famed for ultra-realistic portrait tattoos, have followings of around two million on Instagram. Their work is painstaking and it contains incredible detail in everything from skin textures to lines, wrinkles, drops of sweat and other characteristics that bring their work to life. There is little that differentiates modern tattoos from any work you might find at a top gallery in New York or London. Artist Roxx has exhibited her work with live models at MoMa, and she is just one of many whose art has been exhibited in many forms – including photographs depicting urban life.
An Art Form with a Difference
New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman rightly stated that tattoo art is different from other forms owing to its ‘outsider status’. Because modern tattooing was once seen as “self-taught art, prison art, and art of the insane,” it still bears an air of rebellion that appeals to those embrace art as a form of protest or rebellion. Kimmelman’s words were penned in 1995 and it could be argued that tattoos are losing just a little bit of their ‘alternative status’, and are increasingly being seen as a means of personal expression and artistry.
An Education in Tattoo Art
The seriousness of tattoos as an art form is evident in the fact that art schools across the globe are teaching this speciality. At places like the Academy of Art University, students can hone their skill in key areas of artistic representation – including the use of light and shade, proportion, perspective, and the like. They can also try out specialities – including the artistic recreation of nipples for women who have had mastectomies – tattooed works look incredibly realistic and have made many women across the globe happy following what for many is a traumatic loss.
Tattoos, traditionally used to indicate rank or to brand different groups of people, is now a pure form of fine art in its own that is being studied, praised, and exhibited. From MoMa to the Prado in Madrid, galleries are embracing this deeply personal art. Tattoo creation is also now part of formal courses in art, with clients craving increasingly realistic tattoos that require fine technique.