Written on the body
Diana Kiernander explores the enduring fascination with the art and history of tattooing
A glorious butterfly is gazing up at me. It has a cutesy, cartoon face and curled lashes. Its larger than life wings are a dazzling explosion of pop-art colour and bubble dimensions. Flowerheads, blasted with vibrant, glowing blocks of green and red ink circle above.
This multicoloured mix of manga-inspired art is not on a gallery wall though. Clipped inconspicuously into the back of a dark folder, stuffed with tribal designs, skulls and crossbones, it’s one of the many modern images bringing tattoo art bang-up-to-date.
It’s fair to say the popularity of tattoos has grown steadily in recent years. Suddenly, everyone, from reserved office workers to casual students, wants to be adorned with a slice of street cool.
In the past year, the independent tattoo parlour scene has supersized. There are four studios within minutes of each other in Glasgow’s west end, and the southside city streets are catching up fast. A trawl through Edinburgh uncovers no less than 12 reputable ink dens.
Perhaps the demand is not so surprising when you consider the present cultural climate. Our fast-track consumer society means style can be bought off any High Street shelf, but tattoos uniquely tap into the art of self-expression. A permanent mark on the skin is the ultimate imprint of individuality. You can interpret the carved scars as opaque messages, charged with meaning.
Conversely, body art can also act as a peculiar identity tag. History recalls how criminals, sailors and Japanese mafia figureheads forged unbreakable bonds through displaying symbolic scars on the skin. Nowadays it is increasingly difficult to align yourself with a proper underground scene, so is it any wonder people are seeking community and acceptance with an alluring visual edge?
The overwhelming obsession with uniform beauty and body image desperately needs to be challenged. Like all good art, tattoos flout the transgression of beauty norms and celebrate difference. The emergent style mood of the masses then appears to be unconventional and rebellious, a deliberate move away from the Western image aesthetic.
It’s encouraging to note that women are forerunners of the trend, with 20% of British women having a tatt, compared to just 13% of men. It’s a way of flouting abstract femininity and vacant glamour in favour of a strong statement about personal identity.
So, as body art becomes an acceptable alternative culture choice, society starts its search for another taboo. Enthusiasts are already creating something new. Tattoos are being taken to a sci-fi extreme. Post-Matrix, post- Gatecrasher, there are body modification groups emerging with a unique interest in branding, cutting, binding and inserting implants. It’s a futuristic remit that may never really take off. But then you look at the butterfly and remember that someone may have said that about tattoos once.
STATS ON TATTS
As tattoos become increasingly common among growing numbers of men and women, and with removal techniques being costly and often ineffective, it’s wise to remember that a tattoo is a lifelong commitment. It can be a brilliant reminder of a particular time in your life, but pick your design carefully. Here’s a rough guide to what’s popular now.
The legacy of tribal communities, from Maori culture to African and Pacific Isle dwellers, continues to inspire Western tattoo trends. But artists advise caution when imitating symbols associated with an ancient belief system.
‘It’s a good idea to do some research as to the significance of a particular design,’ says David Hall, who owns Southside Ink in Glasgow, ‘Often there were rituals and status attached to certain designs.’
When choosing a tribal design, be aware that, historically, choices differed according to your gender, social and marital status. Also tribal tattoos are not all solid black lines, they can be colourful too. Somewhere like Southside Ink in Glasgow has a huge selection of tribal designs and the ancient look is the perfect choice if you want to choose a something straight from a book. It’s also great if you don’t want a tattoo that is going to make you look and feel too different. Most parlours have a choice of tribal tattoos.
‘The great thing about Japanese tattoos,’ says Charlotte Brettle, owner of Venus Flytrap studio in Edinburgh, ‘is that they are designed to fit the person.’ Charlotte specialises in custom work based on Japanese art, geisha girls and flowers and she sees herself creating something pretty and personal for the wearer.
Japanese work is popular today, particularly amongst the female clientele, as it shows off a softer, more feminine side to the tattoo process. In Japan itself, the beautiful art and imagery still have a difficult relationship with the practice of tattooing. Full-body tattooing, which the Japanese are famed for, has long been associated with the mafia, and though stylish youngsters in Japan flirt with tattoo culture, there is a stigma attached to this process. Even today, tattooed people will be banned from public arenas like swimming pools, baths and gyms. Head to Venus Flytrap in Edinburgh for custom-made Japanese tatts, or check out the choices on offer at Kaya Tattoo studio in Glasgow.
The upsurge in interest surrounding tattoo art in recent years means demand is growing for more personalised designs and patterns.
‘The tattoo market is saturated in morbid, horrific images, so custom tattoos offer something else, something beautiful and I think that’s very valuable,’ says Marcus MacAndrew, of Old Town Tattoos & Body Piercing. Marcus has a background in illustration and believes tattoos are affordable works of art for everyone. The number of parlours specialising in this area is growing quickly. Custom Inc in Glasgow work only with original designs, and Red Hot and Blue Tattoos in Edinburgh’s west end have custom-led ethos too.
Though tattoos are lifelong commitments, in the hands of a skilled artist, designs can be amended and their focus altered. Faded work or symbols that have lost their significance can be covered up. ‘We can do a lot, from cleaning up the lines of an old tattoo to complete redesign, that normally involves making the tattoo larger and creating a new focus in a different area,’ says cover-up specialist David McKinley of Archangel Tattoos in Glasgow. It’s possible to add colour, even to black work, and as long as the skin is not scarred or damaged, it is possible to create a new tattoo style. Studio 13 in Edinburgh also has a lot of cover-up expertise.
THE INK KEEPERS
These artists give us the lowdown on tattoos, everything from tribal trends to how you start charting those inky memories.
When did tattoo art become your vocation? ‘I got my first tattoo 20 years ago and it was so painful I said I’d never go back. One week later I was getting more work done and I’ve been tattooing ever since. I’m self taught and I just love my work to death.’
David Hall (pictured above), Southside Ink, Glasgow
Why do you work with tattoos? ‘I love the mystique of it. It’s a lot more regulated now but there are no college courses or anything. You have to find your own way.’
Paul Hamilton (pictured above), Kaya, Glasgow
Why do people still want tattoos? ‘I think it makes people feel good about themselves. It’s also a great conversation starter, but it’s not a good idea if it’s for fashion.
David McKinley (pictured above), Archangel Tattoos, Glasgow
Can someone have too many tattoos? ‘I think it’s a way of living your dreams. Tattoos can make people happy. It is normally quite individual people who come to us and it is a real meeting of minds.’
Nathalie Tome, OTT, Edinburgh
What’s the most bizarre tattoo you’ve ever been asked to do? ‘Someone asked for “Hummus is Yumous” lettering, illustrated by a tub of hummus with some garlic cloves beneath.’
Charlotte Brettle (pictured above), Venus Flytrap, Edinburgh
Is it true women are better with the pain than men? ‘The pain is worse for everyone in the summer because your body temperature is raised! I just tell my clients to have a good breakfast first!’
Kris Leather (pictured above), Tiki Monkey, Edinburgh
WHERE TO GET ONE
Anjy Panj’s Archangel Tattoos
103 Saltmarket, 552 9988
Archangel Tattoo & Piercing
243 Maryhill Road, 333 1717
The Artful Dodger Tattoo & Piercing Studio
6d Main Road, Condorrat, 01236 728032
Body Line Tattoos & Piercings Studio
5 Dixon Street, 248 4966
18 Minard Road, 649 5974
Creative Art Tattoo Studio
81 St Georges Road, 354 0474
1060 Argyle Street, 249 9949
113 Dumbarton Road, 339 6171
41 Farmeloan Road, Rutherglen , 647 8770
25 Dowanhill Street, Partick, 342 4008
Johnny’s Tattoo Studio
5-7 McFarlane Street, 553 1209
Southside Ink Tattoo Studio
62 Battlefield Road, 632 5372
Terry’s Tattoo Studio
23 Chisholm Street, 552 5740
Unit 26–28 Calderwood Square, East Kilbride, 01355 590532
Tribe 2 Tattoos
1 Bank Street, 337 1940
Tribe 4 Tattoos
15 Bath Street, 332 5355
76 Main Street, Kilsyth, 01236 822602
Ace Tattoo Studio
130 Gorgie Road, 337 673
Bill’s Tattoo Studio
73 Elm Row, 556 5954
Blue Tiger Tattoo
225 Leith Walk, 555 0009
177 Constitution Street, 467 7011
Old Town Tattoos
Blackfriars Street, 556 0345
Red Hot & Blue Tattoo
13 Brougham Place, 477 7753
6 Jeffrey Street, 558 2974
9-11 East Fountainbridge, 229 3709
Tiki Monkey Tattoos
90 Dalry Road, 3468857
Tribal Body Art
248 Canongate, 558 9019
Tribe Tattoo & Piercing
47 West Nicolson Street, 622 7220
Tribe 3 Tattoo Studios
29 Cockburn Street, 622 4554
Venus Flytrap Tattoo
50 Candlemaker Row, 220 4971