Tattoos From Sketch to Skin

“A tattoo artist isn’t an artist, though, right?”

In nearby Allston, right off of the Harvard Avenue T stop, Stingray Body Art offers piercings and tattoos for any willing, sober participant. Home to 12 different artists and a massive, private workspace, I’ve seen nothing but great ink come out of the establishment. There’s no doubt that Stingray is a great tattoo parlor—however, confusion is arising as it prepares for its upcoming art showcase on Mar. 31. The 18+ event sounds like a great time, with a live DJ, free snacks and drinks for sale, yet many don’t know what to expect. Will the walls of the shop simply be lined with framed tattoo mock-ups? How many portraits of pin-up girls in American traditional style will be on display?

What many fail to realize, and even I often forget to consider, is how much talent is necessary to have a career as a professional tattoo artist. When people are paying you high prices for a piece of work that they will carry on their bodies for the rest of their lives, you assume a huge responsibility to make that piece perfect. Granted, one could argue that an artist working exclusively with non-erasable ink pen is operating under the same conditions of permanence. That artist, on the other hand, won’t be sued for making an un-undoable mistake, only annoyed with his or her own failure. The stakes of a job are always raised when working directly with a customer, and the pressure put on tattoo artists to produce great work is incredible.

The only reason they don’t crack under this pressure is their sheer natural and practiced talent. The last artist that I spoke to actually told me the story of his years in art school in Boston, where he was able to hone his affinity for visual art into a professional skill and eventually combine that with his love of tattoos in becoming an artist at Stingray. Most would consider a man with his level of artistic education working as a freelance painter or sketch artist an “artist” with no hesitation, yet the social stigma associated with tattoos discredits his talent.

This is where people start to question the credibility of a tattoo artist’s work. At least to my traditional, southern parents, tattoos are uncouth, unbecoming, and unprofessional, so therefore the people who administer them must be blind to culture and artistic integrity. I’ve never agreed with this sentiment, but this negative social connotation leads to the dismissal of how stunning and technically intricate tattoos can be. What’s more, few artists limit their talents to only designing and inking tattoos—that’s not how they got started drawing, after all. Like any artist, their talents range from oil paints to charcoal pencils, from hyper-realism to cubist portraits, and from tiny sketches to massive murals. They aren’t limited to only one facet of their skills simply because it is the one they make a living with.

Stingray’s art show could house any kind of visual art, so I’m not setting any expectations beyond excitement for the quality of the work. But putting the artists’ work in an actual art show should not be the only time their work is acknowledged as “art”—tattoos themselves require the same, if not higher, level of skill, with much higher stakes involved. Even more importantly, I’d argue that the lasting emotional effect of a tattoo is even more drastic than that of a Van Gogh exhibit at the MFA. An artist can create a beautiful piece of work that resonates with human emotion and provides aesthetic comfort, but a tattoo artist uses his or her talent so people can view themselves as beautiful, and if that isn’t art, I don’t know what is.

Featured Image By Associated Press