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What’s the point? Is there value in the needle?

The Pietà by Michelangelo

I recently asked some family members to describe a tattooist in relation to a tattoo artist for me. I got a myriad of responses, my favourite was “I’m slowly coming round to [tattoo artists] having value in society”. At first I was upset, then I felt some relief that that was one less Christmas card I had to write that year. The general consensus was that a tattooist provided a base level service, a tattoo copied from someone else, maybe a few minor changes here or there but a copy nonetheless. An artist? Well, we just did a bit more drawing and just had a bit more passion when we serviced the client.


I spent all those years trying to get out of call centres and apparently I still ended up in the seediest, most back streetiest service of them all: a tattoo artist. At least I have passion this time around though, right?


I asked them to answer the question again but just changed the ink to paint. What was the difference between a painter and an artist? Apart from semantics they viewed them as the same. A creator. So why was I in the service industry?


Ask a few more traditional people about tattoos and I imagine you’ll get the same response: they’re for bikers, sailors and prison leavers. But art? Billionaires have art, big fancy people in big fancy jobs with big fancy cars. I know which company I’d rather keep, but I'm probably a bit biased. Why do we put value in art? I previously called it magical, and it is, but why? Who granted it its power?


I believe if we look at the timeline of 'art', a very generic timeline of it, we can see when art stopped being relegated to a sociological or anthropological medium and became something in its own right. We can see when the creative process was viewed by academics as it’s own thing and not as a service to its harbouring society or the advancement of the human race. Cave painting is art but it's often most talked about for its significance in human evolution. It is given a function: what it can tell us about how and when humans evolved. A while later we started to dip our toes into big architectural feats, we built monoliths and churches and pyramids, and we began to add beauty into our work but the work still came out of necessity, with function attached to it. We often think of the Renaissance as this great big artistic movement, but it could be easily argued that it was just a service. Now maybe this is a semantic argument but the term used at this time, ars, did not distinguish between craftsmen or artist. Artisans existed and were paid extremely well but their pay really depended on whatever skill they set their hands to. Supply and demand. We look at the Sistine chapel and it’s a masterpiece that almost defies logic but, if church records and artisan contracts for frescos and triptychs (paintings and panels respectively) from the Renaissance period are to be believed,  Michelangelo was probably paid less for that than the woodworker who built the altar. Due to the terminology and the societal view of the arts it didn't matter if you built ships or depicted God. In fact, you were probably paid less if you just did the latter. You can't exactly fish from a painting.


One of my all-time favourite stories from this era involves art, even though the concept of art wasn't widely recognized at the time. Art and its creation is often about the need for validation and recognition - the notion that your skill transcends the present moment persists. Despite this, the individual still craved recognition and validation, yearning to be acknowledged and appreciated. The Vatican was, and remains, the 5th largest art gallery in the world; they commissioned hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces during the Renaissance. The only caveat to this is that not one painting or sculpture was to be signed. That is, except one. Michelangelo, that real party dude, in an act of rebellion snuck back to add his name to his sculpture 'The Pietà' because he needed the world to see his value. He also didn't enjoy that at a youthful 23 years old no one believed his talent. The chiselling (just below the breast) roughly translates to “Michelangelo was here” because isn’t art just an act of rebellion? I think it turned out well for him. He’s considered one of the masters, after all.


Whilst you may appreciate the comparison between that memorial tattoo for your Nan and the Sistine Chapel you’re probably wondering why I’m making it. Art didn’t become art out of necessity, it was rather the lack of it. The advancements during the Renaissance led to a lot of free time; a more centralised bank and finance system; the start of the modern press machine; freedom of information and access to advanced Mathematics that had been tucked away by Islamic Scholars; and oil paints were revolutionised to be easier to use and last longer. Your tiny village in the big wide world suddenly became a lot more connected and the world a whole lot smaller.


Around this time craftsmen became increasingly concerned with things like perspective, in an effort to depict the reality of the space instead of the flat linear drawings that proliferate Medieval works that instead needed to show the story. Rich noblemen, without wars to finance, noticed this change and now had the money to support the arts. In return for such patronage, the artists created works that would help establish the legacies of these noblemen. Nothing helps later generations remember you like a huge statue or a painting, or in Cosimo de’Medici’s case (the guy who started the Medici Bank, the largest and most respected financial institution in Italy) a giant palace in the middle of Florence. Suddenly that money could be put towards the finer things (pun intended) in life, like art. So now art was beginning to leave its space of necessity and transcend, through investment, into a legacy. A picture is worth a thousand words, which is a really great exchange rate when only 1 in 5 Europeans could read at that point.


So I’m complaining that tattooing isn’t recognised as art when art has not been recognised as art for the majority of its life. Why should I complain? Well, art wasn’t recognised because it wasn't a word, but it is now. Back in Italy they needed some rich backers and some free time, that got their foot in the door and the respect and recognition they deserved. Today we have the word, we have the free time and we clearly have the money. The Canadian PM has tattoos, the former CEO of Twitter has tattoos. Post Malone and Lil Wayne likely have more face tattoos than I have on my entire body, yet they earn more in a year than I'd see in a lifetime. In short, literally billions of pounds are being spent on tattoos by actual billionaires everyday with a current trajectory of almost a $3 billion annual spend by 2030. So why are tattoo artists still snubbed? Is it personal?


It seems as though everything is perfectly aligned, doesn't it? There are rich backers, we can show that tattooing has the skill to capture the moment and there are countless artisans out there. The only thing we’re missing is that societal view, that desire to be the perfect “Renaissance man”. Someone told us back then that we could stop and smell the roses, so to speak, and enjoy them we did. In fact we enjoyed them so much that we’re still marvelling at them centuries later.

Perhaps it's time we consider informing people that we're no longer operating within the confines of the service industry. Perhaps we find that catalyst, demystify the art in tattooing, change the historical perception and preconception.


Or perhaps we should take a page out of Michelangelo's book and, under the veil of darkness, clandestinely unveil our creations and force everyone to see our names.

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