A to Z of the Human Condition: S is for Skin Art

2 October 2014

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. This week, Nicola Cook looks at one of the ways we adorn our bodies as she explores how we illustrate human skin, illustrated by your photos.

 Your #HumanSkin photographs in our current exhibition.
[object Object]

Your #HumanSkin photographs in our current exhibition.

It’s in our very nature to change our bodies. Some say the choice to alter and adorn ourselves, the active desire to show the rest of the world exactly who we are through our appearance, is one of the things that makes us human. From facial hair to hair dye and lipstick to lip piercings, the ways we can express ourselves are endless and range from fleeting aspirations to near-irreversible transformations.

One of the oldest forms of more permanent body modification is now arguably one of the most popular. Bodies decorated with traditional bold, blue-black lines and solid block colours; intricate stippled, hand-poked patterns; or grey-washed realism are on high-fashion billboards, poking out from under shirt-sleeves or emblazoned across knuckles and chests.

Healed already 💁

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They’re both traditional and progressive, described as “modern primitivism” and as literal “marks of civilisation”. Engrained in cultural history and associated with deviance and mutilation as much as reclaiming the body and subverting beauty paradigms, tattoos are a highly-exposed “art form” that are so thwarted by a conflicting narrative, Western society still doesn’t know whether to accept or resist it.

And another little one by the lovely @rebecca_vincent_tattoo 💀 Will get a decent snap once it's healed…

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Though striving to be a unique embodiment of self-expression, it ultimately unifies people with a common interest, creating a (sub)culture that is open to judgement and stereotyped misconceptions. One I hadn’t really thought of before writing this post is of the tattoo artists themselves.

@ExploreWellcome Here's my tattoo. March hares, designed and tattooed by Dan Morris at Rain City Tattoo, Manchester. http://t.co/ghbvDjJxQL
Red Sky At Night (@redskyatnight) June 19, 2014

Tattooist Erik Rubright sums this up perfectly on his blog: “…sometimes it’s difficult to separate the stereotypes about people with tattoos from people who do tattoos. Although… the later mostly includes the former since most people who do tattoos have tattoos. Mostly.” I doubt I’m the first person to assume that, as part and parcel of the job and the industry, tattooists are likely to have heavy coverage or lots of visible tattoos. Having blank bodily canvasses of their own seems a bit like a doctor who faints at the sight of blood.

Today by @mattchahaltattoo

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But tattooing is fast becoming increasingly recognised as an art form as techniques and styles progress. The artists are often just that: artists, either self-taught or formally educated. The industry is diversifying and the negative stereotypes are being challenged and refuted.

On the other side of the world, in Australia, two tattoo artists are doing just that. Originally from the UK, Nicola Garner (who although isn’t tattooing at the moment) got into it some years ago as a means to make money as a professional artist. She worked in a high end custom studio, which enabled her to exercise her creativity. Nicola was surprised, however, at the amount of resistance she was up against from both her peers and clients because she didn’t have any tattoos herself.

@ExploreWellcome @wellcometrust#HumanSkin my tattooed fingers, chest and eyebrows http://t.co/VgcizlkPoD
Becci Owens (@MrsBecciOwens) July 01, 2014

It was a time when tattoo shops were predominantly run by bikers, so the older, more traditional tattooists thought it was disrespectful to the industry. I was intrigued as to how she trained and learnt the skill as most apprentices use their own skin to practice on in the early stages. Nicky explained that this was the only time she ever felt out of the loop in the studio, but this just encouraged her to learn in different ways, mainly from observing, listening to other’s experiences and learning through doing. Regardless of the peer pressure, she wasn’t swayed and remains tattoo-less to this day.

#tbt four years since @oddboytattoo put this on my arm!

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As new generations come through I think we will see more and more un-tattooed artists – after all, it’s the work you produce, not what you wear, that counts. And just because you don’t have any doesn’t mean you’re not aware of or respectful of the history and traditions that are so deeply ingrained in tattoo culture.

– Nicola Garner

Unconventional in many ways, Jin O (who now works at Kaleidoscope Tattoo Studio in Bondi) began her career in Korea where tattooing is illegal. It is considered to be a medical procedure as it deals with the skin, meaning only a licensed doctor is legally permitted to do it. If a tattoo artist is discovered to be tattooing, they will be fined $800 – $20,000 at first but the penalties increase. Just this year, the Ink Bomb tattoo convention was shut down as a ban was enforced by the government.

A somewhat underground industry, Jin originally only designed tattoos. As she became more interested in the process of transforming a drawing into a work of art for the body, she later relocated to the UK to gain experience.


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Much like Nicola, being a tattoo-less tattooist offered its fair share of struggles and negative criticism: one studio had offered her a job, but once the owner found out she didn’t have a tattoo herself he was quick to withdraw it. Interestingly, she found that less-tattooed clients were more inclined to be judgemental and doubt her ability rather than those with more coverage.

Jin has tattooed herself a few times without ink to have some idea of how it must feel. She explained, “It’s not unlike a doctor who is treating a patient but has never had the illness or disease, yet they have some understanding of how their patient must feel. I learned by experience, seeing how my clients would react; that tattoos on certain parts of the body are more painful.”

scissors by duncan x

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Even though she has sometimes received adverse reactions Jin didn’t want to get a tattoo just because her peers or clients were pressuring her into it. She said that she “wasn’t actually interested in getting a tattoo for a long time. I was more interested in tattooing other people” until I contacted her a couple of weeks ago. Jin told me that she’d just got her first and that “the choice to get a tattoo was mine. It might have taken me a long time but I got a tattoo because I wanted it for myself.”

I love the idea that our lived experience is written on our skin. While tattoos mean different things to different people, they’re quite often regarded as a literal extension of this; visually representing meaningful moments in time, memories of loved ones, or personal style, preferences and passions. Whether unintentional, deliberate or inevitable, our skin is constantly evolving: it wrinkles and creases; it gets damaged and scars; it reacts, protects and resists. We may choose to let our skin transform naturally over time but, as Vale and Juno say, “a tattoo is grounded on living skin, so its essence emotes a poignancy unique to the mortal human condition.”

Nicola Cook is the Features Editor of Things&Ink magazine.

See all the #HumanSkin photographs submitted by the public.