Four local tattoo studios are featured in Tattoo London, a new exhibit at The Museum of London looking at the city’s history of ink practice. Much like London’s fusion of cultural influences, the small but comprehensive exposition represents the progression of tattoo style from the late 1880s to today’s internet-driven industry. While the earliest tattoos appeared around 5,000 years ago, and were predominantly remedial as opposed to aesthetic, Western tattooists have historically drawn from other forms of art for inspiration.
“The UK definitely brought a few things to the table,” says Anna Felicity Friedman, a tattoo historian and director of the Center for Tattoo History and Culture. “Because of Britain's, let's say, intense desire to colonize others, tattooing from many places in the world was encountered and information about it disseminated.”
London’s first professional tattooist, Sutherland Macdonald, made a living by tattooing the city’s affluent with copies of paintings or Japanese motifs, the latter becoming popular after Japan opened its borders to the West in the late 19th century. While considered taboo in Japan at the time, tattooing quickly became a commodity for Europe’s upper class, continuing to be influenced by other trendy mediums of the times.
Claudia de Sabe is one of the city’s many tattoo artists, standing out in the contemporary body art scene for her detailed faces and flowing form tattoos. Growing up in Italy, de Sabe went to art school, studying aspects of drawing and architecture. At the age of 15, with a love of punk rock music, she tricked her mother into taking her to her first tattoo convention by telling her it was an art exhibit.
Tanya Warwick is getting her own permanent piece to add to her body’s collection. Lying on her stomach, barely wincing from the needle that’s injecting ink into her skin, she tells The Creators Project, “ I started to develop the subject matter for this tattoo. I wanted something neo-traditional with Japanese elements and I knew that I wanted something from Claudia because I’ve always just loved her style.”
While coloring in a flower on Warwick’s back, de Sabe says, “For many years, I thought tattooing was art and that it should be respected as such. I still believe that in some ways but I think it’s never going to be fully recognized by the art world because it can’t be exploited economically. You can do what you’re doing once and then it belongs to that person.”
“A much wider variety of art as influence on tattooing came into play starting in the 60s and 70s,” explains Friedman. “With the dawn of the tattoo Renaissance and a much larger percentage of tattooers with formal art training.”
Alex Binnie, is another tattoo artist featured in Tattoo London who, like de Sabe, went to art school. “When I started getting into tattooing I approached it from almost a conceptual performance art angle, rather than an illustration graphic type,” he tells The Creators Project. “If you want to learn tattoo now, you’d get into illustration.
Despite tattoo’s popularity with British aristocrats in the beginning of its Western arrival, it later obtained the social stigma linked to underground subcultures such as punk. This has often linked the tattooing practice to similar alternative forms of expression like street art, but as graffiti has begun to appear in gallery spaces, Binnie believes that tattooing has also gone mainstream.
“You use to evolve your own style in isolation,” he says. “There’d be a few books with bits of Japanese body suiting or tribal work, some traditional classical Western tattooing on a couple of shop walls, but there was very little information to look at. If you had a bit of an artistic bent you’d just go your own way. Whereas now, everyone is influenced way too early by way too much stuff that it’s extraordinarily difficult to be original.”
Instagram and reality TV may be to blame for tattoos’ entry into popular culture, but others would disagree that social media and celebrity has changed the industry for the worst. “The internet is the biggest change for me,” says Lal Hardy, representing the oldest tattoo studio in Tattoo London, and a Brit known for his strong ties with American tattoo artist Ed Hardy, who helped innovate the tattoo landscape using Japanese aesthetics. “I’m a bit of an old school artist who tries new stuff and I’ve always tried to be one of those people who showcases others. The guys working in my shop now create things so differently from what I’ve learnt and I get to implement them into my work. I see a big change.”
The complex nature of tattoos, a one-off piece made for an individual never to be resold, has made its relationship with the art world complicated, despite containing various aspects of form and meaning. Having been well-established as a trade for some time, how to continue highlighting its artistic components and people becomes the next undertaking.
“I think a lot of us have other practices, whether silk screen, painting, or engraving,” says de Sabe. “We have other ways to explore art and to apply tattooing to other things. If we can show more of that, I think it would be interesting. I think that could make tattoos more artistic.”
See all of their original work and discover the city’s tattoo history at The Museum of London’s Tattoo London, on now until 8 May 2016.