Should tattoos be considered art? Are tattooers artists?

by Dan Henk Dan Henk

Working title: “Why people might think your work sucks”.

I have been hearing complaints almost since I began fifteen years ago about how tattooing is not being taken seriously as an art form. Maybe it was as a genre specific sort of folk art, but that wasn’t enough for most people in the business. But you know what? I see where the illustrators are coming from.

Now, before people get start to react, let me go over some of this. I think the best approach is to compare tattooing to another medium. When punk rock came out, there were a few auteurs, but most of it was crap. And I like punk. But it’s true.

In high school I had a blue mohawk, combat boots, and a spiky leather jacket. Over time, some real talent started to emerge. That’s when it was recognized as an art form. It took a while, but bands like Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys are respected now. The Ramones and the Sex Pistols have even been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Same with metal. Or science fiction. Or comic books. In fact, I almost went into comics, and I’m still the first to admit that most early comics had mediocre artwork and stories. At best. Now you get the likes of Alan Moore and John Totleben. Metal used to have Venom. Now they have musicians that can play circles around many in other genres. Even  if you don’t like metal, you would be an idiot to not admit it has talent. I think tattooing has gone through the same birth pangs.

Super sick steam-punk tattoo by Dan Henk

The way for anything to prove it’s worth, is by producing a better product. Early tattooing had a limited palette, limited machines and limited needle groupings. Such a social stigma was attached to tattoos for generations that truly talented artists often looked elsewhere for careers. And not to pick on just tattooing, the other genres I discussed had the same problems early on. In fact, going back to the beginning of comics, serious artists tended to do something that involved more money and more respect. Limited time lines, low wages, and stories that were often quick and aimed at the lowest common denominator didn’t help matters. Then, in the eighties, comics developed specialty stores; they weren’t just for passersby at the corner store any more. A different kind of people started reading them, and started making them. Adults remembered them fondly from their childhood. Celebrities admitted they were fans. Comic conventions began sprouting up all over the place. Comic books started to make the news. And then there came the movies. In time, comic books, artists and writers began to to be taken much more seriously by the mainstream. I would say tattooing has gone through a similar evolution.

Painting by Dan Henk

These days there are some some amazing tattoo artists out there that blow away some artists in other fields, or at least compete with it. But just as all comics aren’t well drawn, neither are all tattoos done well. In fact, with such a huge demand for tattoos, there is no way the best artists could even keep up. Unlike most comic or commercial illustrators, tattoo artists aren’t peer reviewed, (unless you count Instagram). And they are in far greater demand. So even technically well-executed tattoos that are artistically mediocre flow out of shops every day. But it’s still true that many, (perhaps even the majority), of tattoos are not well executed at all. They may not flow well with the body, and they make otherwise blank skin actually look worse. To add salt to the wound, unlike bad artwork on paper, they can’t just be shelved and forgotten about. That’s the nature of the beast. At it’s best, Tattoos can impress more than any painting could. At it’s worst, it can become a life-long regret and the subject of jokes at parties. But I don’t think the answer is to cry over spelt milk. Great looking tattoos will always triumph.

What  I hear all the time is, “Wow, that’s a tattoo?” This isn’t because I think my tattoos are the bees knees, I’m talking about tattoos done by a huge range of talented artists. Most people are used to the old-school pieces their parents have, or the small tattoos their friends got from a local flash shop. Put out your best work and forget the haters. Like many punk bands that were written off at the time but are now considered classic, many art forms are like this. The movies Blade Runner and The Shining were panned by critics when they first came out. Now they make all the top ten lists. If it’s quality, it will be recognized, even if it takes time. If not, it may not even noticed while it’s passing,

NickBaxter-1 painting and tattoo by Nick Baxter


Before everyone starts making all sorts of excuses about how they are really just a misunderstood specialist, let’s consider a few things. Good movies make it not because they were “underground” or “misunderstood”, but because they were well done. Too many tattoo artists write off artistic techniques that are the life blood of any other illustrative medium. Anatomy. Perspective. Design and flow. Light source. The list goes on.  Most of the general public is not going to look at a tattoo by the likes of Robert Hernandez, or Tommy Lee Wendtner, and say “oh that’s just scribbled crap”. But by the same token, the public at large is not going to look at the work of Joe Shmo who can’t even pull a straight line and say “that’s art”.

I would like to make another point. Art for Art’s sake…or art for wages? I attended art school. And I remember, in art school, there was this art world snobbery towards anything that was produced for an ‘assignment’. H.R Giger was a well-respected fine artist, until his designs were used for the movie Alien, then the fine art world denigrated him to being just an “illustrator”.  So, if you want to be technical, since a tattoo artist works with a client and produces art for money, he is also just an illustrator. Like Frank Frazetta. Hey, if that’s the company you want to throw me in, I’m fine with that. Keep in mind, however, that this hypocritical frame of reference would apply to all those revered early artists, like Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Da Vinci, etc, etc, etc. The true masters we admire and study now… mostly did religious material and portraits. Why? Because that is what paid the bills. Sounds like illustration to me.

Amazing painting by Carlos Torres

Alright, one more issue that I feel needs to be addressed.

I remember, when I first started, that I had this portfolio with just a few tattoos in it. But I had a whole load of paintings filling the rest. And boy did I hear it. “You’re just a frustrated painter”. “That doesn’t apply to tattoos”. “So you can paint, this is tattooing, who the hell cares”.

Now it seems like everyone paints. Some are really good at it. Like Nick Baxter, or Carlos Torres. But just like anything, most tattooers doing it suck. Even if you are a good tattoo artist, that does not make you a good painter. I have seen great painters try to do another medium, including tattooing, and fall on their ass. They didn’t lose respect as a painter, but that’s no free pass in the tattoo world if your work is crap. You need to do good paintings to be respected as a painter, and good tattoos to be respected as a tattooer.  It’s not like being good in one field gives you some free pass in all the rest. Unless you’re Prince, I don’t expect a good musician to automatically be a good basketball player, and I don’t expect a good tattoo artist to be a good painter.

Carlos Torres tattoo Carlos Torres tattoo

So, in my opinion, a tattoo is and isn’t art. Just like a painting. Many paintings suck. Many tattoos suck. A great painting will be considered art. A great tattoo should also be considered art. Unless someone has a prejudice against tattoos. And if that’s the case, who cares. Their loss.

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