I began tattooing in 1998; a lot has changed since then. For the newcomers, these changes will never be self-evident. The world is interconnected in a way that must have been hard to imagine for Ed Hardy, or Sailor Jerry. When they made contact with Japan, could they have ever imagined this world in which we have instant access to the photos and information they had to work so hard to get?
Access to this information required great dedication and ingenuity. Prettyecious material and knowledge was passed on with secrecy and obtained with effort. Tattooers didn’t want the competition to see what they were working with. What they held close to their chest gave them power, that purple pigment of Sailor Jerry’s, that book of Chinese dragon scrolls or acetate rubbings from Brooklyn Joe Lieber were objects of power, they had the advantage, putting their competition at a disadvantage.
Before the digital age, I would take a photo of a tattoo that I’d finished and then I wouldn’t see it again until I got my film developed. When the tattoo was done it left the shop, if it was on locals or regulars I’d get to see the tattoo in their skin, I’d see if I put the color in solid or if my lines blew out. In those first years, I’d see people come back with red, yellow and crusty skin that was so irritated at my lack of knowledge and craftsmanship. I would do the work and it would go out into the world, not to be critiqued until the film got developed.
Once I got it developed, if I liked what I saw, I would make prints and write my name and shop info on the back of it, then send it into the magazines, and check over the next couple of months to see if it got published. If it did, there was a chance that other tattooers all over the country would look through and judge my work. Maybe they’d see the reference I used, or maybe they liked the way I approached a certain idea or the color scheme. Then again they might have declared it all a pile of fat steaming horse shit. It wasn’t possible to know what people were thinking or talking about behind the closed doors of their shops. Maybe they didn’t notice at all.
Today, with an interconnected world, we can see work from all over the world. Great tattoos being made in Buenos Aires or South Africa aren’t invisible because of their remote locations. We can communicate with other tattooers or potential clients in other towns or countries with minimal effort or cost. We can buy reference material on Amazon, eBay, or through numerous supply companies. I used to spend hours at Barnes and Noble, when I was back in Pennsylvania, using their books, sitting in the cafe and drawing for upcoming appointments. How much easier it is now to find the treasures of the craft, and what an advantage younger tattooers have now, with easy access to great books, documentaries, and great machines being built and sold with the click of a mouse. The need to struggle has been diminished. This explains why the learning curve has changed, why we see kids that have been tattooing for five years that are better than we ever were at ten or fifteen years.
Will Durant, a philosopher and historian said: “If progress is real, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it.” We have the luxury now, of building upon a great wealth of information pertaining to our craft. The vast majority of this information is easily accessible and the potential is there for us all to be better because of it. Most of the work has been done by our predecessors. We are higher up on the pedestal than our forefathers and the newcomers are higher up still. This is the advantage of the young, they inherit the knowledge and work of those who came before.
It’s almost a necessity of humanity that we have to learn from our own mistakes rather than the mistakes of others, which leads me to thoughts on trends. It’s easy to look at the past and see that trends come and go. Tribal tramp stamps, armbands and twisted chrome bodies with no faces… are rarely tattooed today. Now, it’s easy to get a gauge on what people like and what they don’t like. But our ability to see what’s popular has greatly increased, by paying attention to the numbers of likes or the number of comments a post receives, we can gauge what’s hot and what’s not.
What’s trending now, will certainly look dated in ten years. It will be possible to look at a tattoo and say “ah, that’s from the 2010’s”. These crude line drawings that are so popular with the hipsters, watercolor style tattoos with no black that are destined to turn to shit and traditional tattoos with outlines as thick as sharpies will look as dated as that tramp stamp on the old lady in leopard print, with her bleached hair, and leathered skin. The tribal armbands and dolphin tattoos of the past are today’s bird silhouettes and infinity symbols.
I look back on what I was obsessed with and what was popular in the late 90’s and it looks so outdated. Joe Capobianco is a prime example, he was my idol when I was starting out, and highly respected, but he never changed his style, never seemed to progress at all or dip his toes into the stream of the past, and his work looks decidedly 90’s. He has, however, maintained his vision, his individuality, and has not veered away from his natural tendencies. Some people like what he does and I’m sure he does as well. After all, it pays his bills.
Social media has popularized trends on a worldwide scale, therefore we get someone in Australia doing the same style as someone in Brooklyn or someone in Manhattan mimicking someone in Sao Paulo. The craft has turned into a giant circle jerk. It would be hard for it to be any different since everyone is using the same reference materials and referencing one another, with no idea that the ideas do not come from the one they are referencing but from something that person is referencing ad infinitum. If we were to seek the roots and not the fruit we would find it’s possible to leave the orgy of popular thought and find our own way. Independent and built on a solid foundation. It might help to reflect on the words of Mark Twain, who said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
It’s helpful to think of it in terms of the ocean: trends are the top layer of the ocean where the waves are in constant motion, crashing into one another, and swelling towards shore, a never-ceasing flow of energy. This is where the trends and current culture move about. As you dive deeper though, under the current, the water gets still and peaceful, it gets cool and serene, this is where the history of the craft is, this is where I believe it’s important to focus, in the stillness of time and history. In these still waters, in this depth things have had time to settle. It’s where the spirit of our forefathers lie, with their struggle and strife. It’s where we find the timeless approach. Which I believe to be the goal, creating work that is not stamped with a specific time. This is where a craftsman discovers how to use _all_the tools of the trade rather than just sharpie sized liners and Swedish made rotary machines.
What we do comes from history and becomes history. There is great joy in becoming a small part of something bigger than ourselves, of learning from the souls who struggled through the muck before us and fulfillment in disappearing into the abyss and becoming part of history. After all, we are destined to float along and settle in with the likes of Greg Irons, Cap Coleman, and Paul Rogers. Sometime down the line, others will be standing on our shoulders and our names will turn to dust. The likes we received on our latest posts, or the money we made won’t amount to anything at all. The tattoos we carved into once living breathing flesh, whether on trend or timeless, will be consumed by the earth and disappear into the void.