I’m lying on my stomach on a padded table. There’s a horrible buzzing noise pervading the room. Everything smells like ink and latex and my left leg hurts like hell. Jen at Speakeasy is inking the stained glass pattern of a cardinal onto my calf and, oddly enough, my only worry is that I have no idea how I’m going to get into my skinny jeans after this.
“Tattoo” comes from the Tahitian word tatau, meaning “to strike.” In nineteenth century North America, tattooing was the exclusive domain of sailors, circus freaks, and criminals. Of course, times and sensibilities changed, and what was once a symbol of rebellion and punk status is now accessible to even the most contrite of patrons, bringing about phenomena such as Ed Hardy clothing and the irritating phrase “tramp stamp.” Tattoos are everywhere, and if done properly can be a thing of beauty. They require skill, patience, and dedication, on the part of both the artist and patron. They carry with them a storied history, deep meanings, and can subvert societal norms in a single image. One could go on about the traditions and the history of tattooing, but still, are they art? Can something seen as being so low-brow truly be an art form?
I hate this question. It brings back memories of being in particularly boring tutorials, and generally signals to me that it’s time to put my head down on the desk and nap while the more pretentious and gregarious students duke it out. But as I sat there, allowing a complete stranger to shoot needles into my legs several thousand times, I pondered the question. Of course, this may have been because of the blood loss, but either way, it intrigues.
The past few decades have shown a marked growth in the tattoo industry, especially in Toronto. While the city has generally had a solid base of tattoo parlours, the mainstreaming of the practice has allowed for many new shops to open across the city. One example is Speakeasy on Harbord, and the owner, Lizzie, sits in front of me in a bright sunflower-yellow room filled with sketches and books on tattooing. She’s wearing a T-shirt that shows off her heavily tattooed arms. Wilma, her Pomeranian, prowls around my feet, coming to the conclusion that my bootlaces are the most delicious thing in the room, and spends a fair amount of time trying to remove them from my shoes. Lizzie began tattooing around 2003, and while still relatively new to the scene, she is steadfast in her opinion that tattoos are art.
“I see it as a trade,” she says. Wilma starts to edge towards my left boot. “I see it as an opportunity to execute art every day, but I’m not necessarily being an artist every day. Some days I’m just being a tradesperson who’s carrying out a commissioned job for a person.” The dog chomps down on my shoelace and starts to tug. “There is an art [to replicating a drawing] but tattooing is this very fine, lowbrow line that you’re crossing that sometimes breaches into stuff that blows your mind, and sometimes it’s just repeating images, which is the tradition of the whole thing.”
I reach down and try to nudge the dog away. She barks and runs over to Lizzie. Thank God these boots came with a spare set of laces.
The Toronto scene is unique and widely varied. While Speakeasy still has an air of the bygone days of the traditional tattoo parlour, other shops like Black Line present a different front. Located in the swanky heart of King Street West, the shop is large, slick, and filled with trendy bits of clothing and jewellery. As I wait for one of the artists, two middle-aged women come in to browse. They appear to be in their mid-forties, but are wearing Uggs and zip-up hoodies, as though they plan to hit up Robarts after looking for new belly-button rings. As they gingerly peek through a small stack of T-shirts studded with black rhinestones, I think of Lizzie’s words: “I don’t think you’ll get the soccer moms coming in anymore with studded Ed Hardy purses wanting something [trendy]. It will be slower, there will be fewers tattooers, and I think it will wane.” A tall guy in a black baseball cap comes over to the counter, and I leave the two women to peruse the glass cases of studs and ornate rings.
Moses is relatively unadorned for a tattoo artist. His most standout tattoo is the word “Tyson” which is located on his neck. He started tattooing around six years ago, and I lean up against what looks to be a dentist’s chair to pose my same question: “Are tattoos art?”
“It’s a couple of art forms,” says Moses. “The first part would be the drawing, and just having a natural eye for visuals and creativity, and the other would be the actual tattoo gun, as far as knowing how to use it […] and going from there.”
The two ladies are quietly looking through a portfolio. Moses looks over toward the chair and makes his case, stating, “Everyone has their own idea of art and what art is and that’s [the beauty of it]. It’s a pretty wide range of one’s personal thoughts of what things should be and what they gravitate toward.”
It’s 2 a.m. on the same day and I’m watching an episode of Jersey Shore in my underwear. Once I get past the feeling that I’ve hit rock bottom, I notice that Pauly D is covered in tattoos, including a giant Cadillac logo that snakes its way up his chest. I’m surprised I didn’t notice this already, yet before I can investigate further, someone starts drunkenly yelling and the camera shifts away from the hot tub. Uncomfortable, I turn off my computer and sit there in the darkness. My tattoos haven’t healed yet, and they itch unceasingly.
When exploring the idea of art, most people tend to ignore the media on the outskirts — performance, body-based, and abstract art. While it can be argued that a flash image of a heart with MOM written across it on someone’s bicep may not be “art” in the strictest sense, but what about contemporary performance artists like Orlan, who uses her body as the canvas? If she can carve her face to look more like the Mona Lisa and call it art, what is stopping us from saying that scarification or tattooing isn’t art?
“That’s why I like to refer to tattooing as more of a trade,” says Lizzie. “In art there’s really no rules and in tattooing, whether people like it or not, there’s a lot of rules and if you can’t take the time to learn them and execute them properly, then you’re kind of bastardizing what it is.”
Milo has only been tattooing for two years at Lucky 13. When you first meet him, you don’t notice too many tattoos, but when he takes off his shirt, you can see that he has a large wing unfurling across his right shoulder blade. He takes a similar stance to Lizzie: “Tattooing in the sense of a trade is almost imperative because each artist is essentially a soloist, regardless of if they work in a shop or not, because their art represents themselves even before it represents the shop, and to survive, an artist has to understand the monetary value of their work. […] The concept of artist versus prostitute (in the sense of selling out one’s skills for money) is not a foreign concept to all artists who are trying to find a moral balance, and so it should be little surprise that it translates into the tattooing subculture as well.”
My first tattoo was of an interrobang on the inside of my left arm. Right after I got it, I called my dad to tell him the news.
“Dad! I got a tattoo!”
There was a pause on his end. “… Okay, uh… what of?”
I hesitated. “Well, I got a naked chick. On my neck.”
The fact that he took this seriously worried me.
Of all the mainstream tattoo fads, I’ll admit here that I hate the show LA Ink, and it pleases me to hear that Kat von D, one of the shop owners on the show, isn’t the bastion of tattoo artistry that she tends to be made out to be. “I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to always hear her name repeated when really, I think it was Hanky Panky who said that as far as technique goes, Kat von D can’t kick her way out of a wet paper bag,” says Lizzie, frowning.
“I feel as though the rising popularity of tattoo culture is a double-edged sword. Over-saturation means that the artistic value loses some sincerity and originality and becomes passé,” says Milo. Still, he remains optimistic. “I think that even though the over-saturation has brought in people who are interested in a trendy tattoo to the shops, it also has brought a staggering amount of people who really want an original and well executed piece of art as well. I think that even after all the hype is over the art will still remain steadfast.”
Back at Speakeasy, Wilma has given up on my shoes and is now sniffing Lizzie’s tattooed hands. She looks down at the dog and notes, “It’s one of the last trades that has a lot of mystery and a sort of roughness about it and not everyone should be allowed to do it; it should be a special thing,” says Lizzie. “Just because it’s a cool job doesn’t mean it’s for everybody.” Spoken like a true artist.