Are Tattoos Art? The Fine Line Between Self-Expression & Self-Destruction

Published February 23, 2021
By Celebrity Ink

Are tattoos art?

We think so. Tattoos were not always considered art, as you well know.  Even as recently as the past few decades, people who tattoo were referred to as tattooers or tattooists. It positions tattooing as more of a trade or skill rather than an art. For many, art and tattoos have been living in separate worlds. Some go so far as to say that tattoos are not art.

This may be due to the perceived limitations of skin as a medium. For example, rich textures and the illusion of light may be achieved through layers of paint, different brushes, and so on.

Tattooing just doesn’t have that ability. Or does it?

How do we define art? What is its purpose? 

The earliest recorded tattoo was found on a mummy in the Alps that dates back to 3250BC. Ötzi, the European Tyrolean Iceman had 61 tattoos. We also know that ancient Egyptians used tattoos for decorative purposes, primarily only worn by women. In Samoan culture, the skill of tattooing is passed from father to son.

Art is intentional, it makes a statement to challenge and alters one's perception. So, are tattoos art? Like any good form of art, the question of tattoos is still hotly debated. 

tattoo artist tattooing art

What is art?

Intention = Art

As it stands, if someone intends for their art to be art, then it is art. Many modern artists and renowned museum curators agree that whether the tattoo is designed by a tattoo artist or if it is designed with the intended wearer, the intention behind the design is what determines its definition. Like art, tattoos are collectable.  People collect tattoo art on their own skin, which can actually be a considerable investment depending on the artist.

There are many similarities between what is considered traditional art and tattoo art.  Collectors of fine art tattoos will travel the world for a specific artist, and depending on the name of the artist, a tattoo can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.  Some collectors have even gone so far as to collect human skin, mounted and preserved, like a normal canvas, to feature the tattoos even after death.

What is tattoo art?

Are tattoos art?

It sounds like it so far! However, there may be a definition of tattoo art that distinguishes it from other uses of tattooing, and from other forms of visual art. Tattoo art creates artwork on living skin: the body is an essential component of the artwork.  This gives rise to several other distinctive features of tattoo art. It redefines the relationships between artist, artworks, and viewers.

Much like street art, tattoo art by its nature resists inclusion in and valuation through art institutions such as galleries and museums. If your ink makes a statement, you are now the owner of a piece of fine art. Artist Bruno Levy sees tattooing as one of the purest art forms, untainted by the conventions of the modern art world, or by money.  Tattoo art has no secondary market, nor collectors who want to store your work in a basement or flip it when they decide it doesn’t match the couch.  A tattoo is artwork that walks around in the world with you.

What is the difference between a tattooist and a tattoo artist?

The statement your tattoo makes can be literally anything. Whether the point of your tattoo is to celebrate a time in your life or a loved one, the underlying message is that it’s important to YOU. You’re willing to boldly mark your body, potentially forever. The intentions of many artists is to leave their mark forever on the world, including tattoo artists. Over the last century, there has been an insurgence of artists, founding tattoo museums. These new-age museums feature anything from tattoo machinery to the tattoos themselves, whether that is a picture, living display, or skin.

Art critics have started recognizing tattoos as having multiple interpretations and the ability to elicit feelings.

“As a tattoo artist, the role of the craftsman is interlaced with the role of the artist. The artist’s hand is going to create things differently every time, because we’re not machines.” Bruno Levy.

Levy creates his tattoos with the stick-and-poke method which he learned in Nepal. He attaches a needle to a chopstick and pushes the ink into the skin by hand.  Although this method may lack a certain sophistication, it allows the artist’s hand to show through.

stick and poke tattoo needle

Getty Images.

Tattoo art is on the rise.

The stigma surrounding tattoos is fading. In fact, over 20% of the world’s population has a tattoo. Many people, including employers, recognize tattoos for what they are: an assertion of self-expression and freedom of choice. Art schools across the globe are teaching tattooing as a specialty. At the Academy of Art University, prospective tattoo artists learn skills in key areas of artistic representation. This includes the use of light and shade, proportion, perspective, and more. 

There are even specialties, such as the artistic recreation of nipples for women who have had mastectomies. The difference between great tattoos and mediocre tattoos has never been more clear. More talent increases competition, and that raises the bar for tattoo artists around the world.

Are tattoos art? We’ll let you decide.

One thing is certain: think before you ink.

Further Reading

The History of Tattooing in Thailand

We Delve into the Archives to Appreciate the History of Tattoos

Tattoo Myths Debunked: Tattoos May Actually Help You Land a Job

Get your next tattoo at Celebrity Ink

The team at Celebrity Ink can provide you with not only a tattoo that tells your story but also detailed aftercare information that goes beyond the question of how long does a tattoo take to heal.

Our team sets standards in tattoo design while working alongside you to bring your vision to life. Whether you’re seeking traditional tattoos, realistic designs, mandalas, or any other, we have artists specialising in a range of tattoo styles that can provide you with the tattoo you have envisioned.

Book a consultation to discuss your tattoo design, get in contact with the crew at Celebrity Ink, and we will lock you in for your next ink session.
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