Becoming Fantastic

Practice and Performance

I have been an addict since childhood. Colouring in the faded lines that decorated my grandad’s forearm. A trinket from RAF national service. Which he hated. Green tinted outlines of a design picked from a wall, made by needles swilled in water after their previous journey into human skin.  I would draw felt-tipped flowers all over my body. Transform my childish flesh into the fantastic. And I wanted them.  My uncle had three. A dragon, a panther and a rose. My mother wanted butterflies on her thighs. Her brother told her, ‘Lovie, with thighs like yours they’d look like bats.’ She got smaller butterflies, not smaller thighs.

At 18 I had a postage-stamp sized butterfly etched into my stomach. Expansive around a coloured speck. I hoped that it would help make it beautiful. That I could own my body which I abhor. That I could accept it because I chose this. I wanted this here because it deserves decoration. I forget it’s there now, I continue to draw all over my body.

I would sit for hours, just watching. Listening intently, hoping to catch the half-secret behind the art. Days spent with a sketchbook perched on my lap in the corner. Scribbling away at traditional motifs. When starting a drawing of a koi essentially you sketch a rudimentary penis. I have pages of two-minute phallus waiting to be scaled into fish.

The setup, my set up, has become meditation. Setting up for others, my practice. As individuals we are so different when faced with the same task. Personal needs paving the way for alternative paths to the same destination. I use too much foil, swooshes from the roll with a gleaming flourish. Stuck down to scratched steel with Dettol. Smooth out any creases with gloved palms to make a metallic savannah on which to build. It’s a ritual, a precursor to the main event.  This is where I still get nervous. The build-up. The waiting. The need to appear calm. Confident in my ability when inside I’m terrified of that first mistake.

The performance of preparation was mastered before I ever stepped onto the stage. I was intoxicated by the smell as soon as I entered the room. Clean taste hits the back of my throat. I am thrown back into the cloudy bath, run each time I grazed a knee. The surfaces shine under excessive lighting, equipment within reach. Accessible. Waiting.

Set up. 18RS in the Black Rat. 7RL in the Mickey Sharpz. Stencil the design on the chair. Clients in at 4.

Follow instruction. Repeat back the groupings. Snap elastic bands over the needle bars and press the armature down. Check the depth proud from the tip. Never run or adjust other artists machines. Just check the depth. Stencil clear strong lines. Blueprint skeleton. Simple Celtic knot work. Easy to confuse, to make mistakes, a maze of lines that become clear with shading. I track it with my finger, ensuring its continuous. Double check and step away. Remove clinging gloves. Medical latex which dries out my hands, desensitises my fingertips. Makes me itch. Powder washes away but the smell remains.

            Glove up. Sit down. This one’s yours.

But this was not my set up. Not my station. Not my machines. I was the wrong way around. The joy of being an awkward left hander had taught me to work on the other side, so as not to drag my clip cord across my body.

And so, it begins.

Have you ever put something completely alien into another person’s skin? Consider the act. You are purposely scarring another human being. They are willing. You both know it will be potentially painful, that it can take a long time. Yet here they are. Under your hands, as you hope you remember what to do. 

Mechanical process. Skin prep, stencil, Vaseline, machine and go. So simple. Who’s worried? Settle into my hand. Inanimate. The shrill voice of the machine erupts.

The wrist is pliable. The skin running up the inner forearm is softer than the outer. Smooth, elastic, and surprisingly curved. Lines distort as the skin is pulled tight allowing the needles to penetrate. Minimal bounce. Lessens the risk of tearing. Don’t press, don’t go deep. Slowly track lines and breathe. The first wipes away. Recheck machine, voltage, throw. Go again. It’s there forever. That first line of my first tattoo. My first client. I peeped my toe over the threshold of the world I wanted to frolic in. To announce my arrival and beg for admittance.

The first line is always the worst. The further in you get the more fluidity comes. I was lost in this design. A 3’’ square patch of person. Robotic. Ink, wipe, Vaseline, work. Shade, flick up through the skin, fade it out. Here is where I needed to be. Drunk on Dettol scent and adrenaline. Ink spattering my foil landscape. My own Jackson Pollock to screw up and throw away. Clinical waste.

It took too long. My first. As I agonised over each movement. My hands screaming in pain unused to the weight and the angles gripped between amateur fingers. But as we finished and cleaned the freshly wounded surface, we locked eyes with relief.

There’s trust each time I set needle to skin. It’s a silent contract. I will try to realise what you desire. I shall paint you into the fantastic.

My first, second and third tattoos all lie with the same body. They are never yours, you cannot claim them. These pieces you agonise over, replay in your mind. Those you showcase as proof you belong. They walk away. They age, change. Ultimately decay.

My first tattoo. Its wearer died too young. He was crushed by a car on his driveway. The jack gave way. He was a father, and each of his children were represented on his body. After his death I was tattooing the mother of his children. Conversation wanders when working. You are not only a tattooist, but counsellor, entertainer, listener. She would have liked to have kept the images he had etched into his skin. Something realer than photographs. He was beautiful. His art was beautiful. It was such a waste when it was turned to ash. Someone so colourful and alive reduced to grey. 

Time and Transience

Tattoos are transient, altering over time. They age with the wearer, and to some extent are ownerless. The artist may never see their creation again. The wearer may be unable to view the piece in person. Do those who view the tattoo get to claim it? Dedication designs, memorial tattoos, images that signify membership, religion, fandom. The connotations are endless, as speculative as the reasons people feel compelled to decorate themselves.

Through history humans have sought beauty and understanding. Cave paintings, carvings, earthworks. In 1993 an archaeological dig in Siberia uncovered something remarkable. It has since become a source of fascination, speculation and controversy. From the permafrost of the Ukok Plateau the remains of a young woman emerged into daylight. Like many remains found in the permafrost she is exceptionally well preserved. She was buried with an array of items indicating she was a figure of importance within her society. She was flanked by six horses, spiritual escorts to the next world, a Chinese mirror, coriander seeds and an amount of cannabis. Items relating to royalty and shamanism. She was accompanied by two male warriors. This woman was at the pinnacle of the Pazyryk social ladder. As remarkable as this gravesite was it did not compare with the Ukok princess at its centre. She was wearing intricate and exquisite tattoos. They made her fantastic.

Designs of mythical animals frolicked across her body. Horned beasts, birds, leopards, and fish. Animals of significance.  Dynamic images, specifically stylised and etched into the skin. Full sleeves of intricate work, painstaking hours under the hands of the artist. Fresh and crisp as the day they were wrought some 2500 years previously. The creatures are distinct and specific to ones found at the time, as well as mythical beasts. They narrate a deep understanding of the world in which they lived, that they interacted with and shared with neighbouring people. Similar images have been discovered adorning other remains, repeated in paintings and carvings. These perpetuated images allude to a language or common understanding. Animals graced the skin of individuals across Siberia, the Scythian civilisation united through art.  An alternative form of the elaborate hieroglyphs prolific in Egypt. Scholars believe the Pazyryks used tattoos as a symbol of their social standing, their identity, belief system. As they aged, they gathered more, and in death they became a guide to the next world and a way to recognise each other once they arrived.

The Ukok princess is the oldest example of a tattooed female found. Yet tattooed mummies are not uncommon. Otzi, also recovered from the permafrost, sports simplistic designs. Egyptian mummies were adorned with body art. It is found across the globe in early human history, at a time where civilisations were scattered, isolated, ignorant of others’ practice. It has evolved from indigenous communities that have followed their desire to decorate their bodies using a variety of methods. Traditional Maori and Polynesian tattoos are executed with ivory or bone combs which tap ink into the skin. Some Nordic designs were created by stitching ink-soaked tread through the skin, leaving a dark deposit as it was pulled through. A track of its journey. Japanese tattoos were hand-poked with meticulous precision by skilled artists creating wonderous complicated images.

Connotations surrounding tattoos vary. Historical cultural significance of tattooing has become partially lost to mainstream current fashions. Some aspects remain embedded within specific cultures; however, many have been appropriated worldwide.

Tattooing is currently more visible than it has ever been. There are international conventions, mainstream tv shows, exhibits and literature. The rise of the celebrity artist has been fuelled by celebrity wearers. People are proud of their art. Those with heavy coverage have made a huge financial commitment in their pursuit of tattoos. It is art and we have become avid collectors and consumers.

However, there remains varied reactions to tattoos which continue today, especially the tattooed woman. As a female tattooist I was considered a novelty. Some were happy to have me work, others flatly refused to let me touch them. Initially my coverage was the source of surprise and negativity. I lowered the tone. Stigma has lifted as attitudes change.

Weirdly I still find hand and facial tattoos taboo. They are a huge step for the wearer. These are areas that cannot be hidden and still receive the most reactions. Yet the stigma surrounding these placements is lifting. I had been told, as a child, hand tattoos meant you would not get a good job. Career killers. Luckily my hand tattoos have never been seen in an unfavourable light. I have a L and R on my respective hands, a nod to my inability to know my left from right. They are not political, or reactionary or have any connotations except my frequency at getting hopelessly lost. 

I do not have heavy coverage. All my work is unfinished. I wear a variety of styles, some colour, some black and grey. They were not all chosen by me, even though the majority were drawn by me. I have green jigsaw pieces on my heels, a diamond adorns the inside of my ring finger, hummingbirds and a gilt cage in full colour on my arm with black and grey keys on the inner forearm. I have plans for my back, my thighs, buttocks and chest. It is addictive, moreish, and time consuming. They draw attention, good and bad. The process is incredible. Alien. A pleasurable pain which floods the body with endorphins and adrenaline. It has been linked to self-harm.  A sensory overload of sound, smell, the iron taste of excitement explodes on your tongue. You think about the next one whilst the needles enter your skin.

Museums and marvels

I attended a tattoo exhibition in Falmouth museum. A regional museum, it champions the history and culture of Cornwall, its mining heritage, its people. Upon entering the building there was a sense of modernity and expression in the space and light created in the rooms. The exhibit itself was separate to the main gallery due to the nature of the contents. It is illegal to be tattooed under the age of 18. Most studios do not allow entry to those below the threshold. Upon entering the exhibition space, I was met with a wall of latex forearms, complete with long flexible fingers and cuticle detailing. Each of these arms hung in orderly rows, regimented with equal space around them, alone but part of a bigger picture. They were startling, uncomfortable yet beautiful. Each was decorated by a different artist.  A unique showcase. A capsule of art singularly rendered and amalgamated into this visual event.

I marvelled at these hands. At the creative skill of the artists and how distinct each outcome was. It highlighted the endless possibilities of the body, the endless possibilities of tattoo as a medium, and how it is an art form as well as a personal expression. The exhibition also had small pieces of skin. Suspended fragments in slightly yellowish liquid. A throwback from a Victorian apothecary shop window, or gentleman’s curiosity cabinet. There was a small sign saying there were human remains that some people may find disturbing. I have never seen one of these signs in an Egyptian exhibit, with open sarcophagus displaying mummies. Surely, they are the same?

Tattoos are a curiosity, especially those from indigenous communities. Mokomokai, tattooed heads from New Zealand, were exhibited across the globe, as were shrunken heads from South America. The tattooed lady at fairground and circus side shows, isolated tribes from remote wildernesses. There is a sense of other about such exhibits which now sits uncomfortably. The Medical Pathology Museum in Japan boasts a collection of 105 full body tattoos. These bodysuits are preserved in different ways, some dried and flat, others are wet specimens, and some have been mounted like taxidermy. They are controversial and precious; access is carefully controlled and highly restricted. Yet they continue to acquire new specimens. The fascination with tattoos has made them a commodity.

Collecting tattooed skin is not unusual. Museums worldwide actively expand their catalogue and cultivate new corpuses. The Welcome Collection in London had over 300 individual fragments, there are also collections in Lisbon, Paris and Krakow. Contemporary pieces are now finding their way into museums, viewed more as artwork rather than remains. Retired teacher Geoff Ostling has gifted his body to the Australian National Gallery. His skin will be posthumously removed, preserved and exhibited, including his face and genitalia. Ostling began to get tattooed at 42 and says he ‘decided to get tattooed because he felt it helped him take possession of his body.’  Ostling claims his skin could fetch half a million dollars on the illegal market, he considers his gift akin to organ donation. Yet the sensitivity of preserving and displaying the skin has created uncertainty around its eventual residence.  The popularity of skin preservation has created a market for those who can facilitate it. The National Association for the Preservation of Skin Art in America facilitates the removal and preservation of tattoos, sending a kit to the mortuary to remove the designated area and halting decomposition. Six months later the piece is returned as a framed memento.

Belgian artist Wim Delvoye is known for exhibiting taxidermy mounts of tattooed animals, notably pigs. In 1999 he began working upon the skin of live animals shocking animal rights groups and audiences. Delvoye states ‘I show the world works of art that are so alive, they have to be vaccinated. It lives, it moves, it will die.’ There is divided opinion. Animal rights groups argue the pigs are enduring unnecessary suffering and fear. Delvoye believes he is repurposing the pigs as living canvasses. The skins are highly valued, a single pig could fetch up to $70,000. In 2006 Delvoye tattooed the back of Tim Steiner. Steiner is contractually obligated to exhibit his tattoo three times a year and upon death his skin is to be ‘harvested’ and sent to art collector and gallerist Rik Reinking. Reinking has the rights to exhibit and sell the work. The prospect of an individual selling their skin seems more acceptable than a man tattooing and selling the skin of a pig. Here is the reality of choice. As adults we decide to tattoo our bodies, we decide if we want them to be seen or not, we are then able to decide what happens to it posthumously. With regards to ancient remains, they are viewed as scientific artefacts rather than pieces of art with the advantage of emotional and familial distance. They are ‘intellectual property’ and we have the right to use it for exhibition and study.  It is argued ‘The soul is somewhere else, and we are studying the remains.’  Modern exhibits however run the risk of impacting on the subject’s family and friends.

Human remains exhibits raise questions of choice and consent. Who can claim them? Who has ownership and responsibility? Ancient communities did not expect to be discovered, unearthed and taken on worldwide tours. They did not expect to be of specific scientific interest or a curiosity. Significantly many subjects have been repatriated and removed from display, especially examples from indigenous groups. In an article about the Ukok Princess, Dr Eriknova explained to the Siberian Times in 2004:

She was a beautiful young woman, who they dug up, poured hot

water and chemicals upon and subjugated to other experiments.

They did this to a real person.

This reality is underpinned by a bust created by taxidermist Marcel Nyffenegger. For over two weeks he painstakingly reconstructed her face from an exact model of her skull. The finished recreation is adorned with tattoos. Indeed, the tattoos are now so recognisable and appreciated they have returned to living canvasses. Named Scythian animal style art, it is proof of the influence and appreciation of the artistry and legend resurrected by this prehistoric woman. As modern individuals sit down next to their artists set up, I wonder do they consider the young woman 2500 years ago sitting with her artist undergoing her own evolution. Could she imagine the thwack of latex gloves being pulled on, the electric buzz of machine erupting into life? Ancient meets modern in a flawless scar. As Dr Polosmark explains ‘I think we have not moved far from the Pazyryka in how the tattoos are made. It is still about a craving to make yourself as beautiful as possible.’

Or, as I see it, becoming fantastic.

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