Tattoo Art Revisited

For many the word “tattoo” conjures up images of black-leather-clad bikers straddling Harley-Davidsons or sleazy waterfront saloons where drunken sailors have hearts and mermaids tattooed on their biceps. Very few people would actually consider tattooing an art form. Yet it qualifies as one of humankind’s oldest artistic expressions. Two fine current exhibits feature decorative body art. Contemporary artist Antoine Tzapoff studied Indian dance rites in Mexico, resulting in a superb series of 25 documentary paintings on view at the Maison de l’Amérique Latine. The Marquesan exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme highlights magic rites and the extraordinary nature of Marquesan tattoo designs, which cover large areas of the body.

“Tattoo” comes from the Tahitian “tatau,” used throughout Polynesia to describe the light tapping technique used for cutting the skin and adding soot or pigments to create permanent designs and markings. The French navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who explored the Pacific in the late 1760s,  supposedly introduced the word  to the west.

Ethnologists can trace the significant role of body ornamentation in diverse cultures back to the stone age. A 4,000-year-old mummy of an Egyptian child of royalty had a sun god design cut into his skin. The Celtic tribe known as the Picts are thought of as aptly named because of the picture-markings they pricked into their epidermis. Recently, the famous discovery of the 5,000-year-old Iceman’s body in a glacier  revealed some interesting tattoos, not marks of tribal identification but apparently highly personal decorations, done for their own sake.

Traditional tattoos often incorporate sacred rites and myths that have continued to flourish throughout the centuries. In many cultures masterpieces of tattoo art are associated with initiation rites, marking the transition from childhood to maturity. Some Native American tribal beliefs taught that tattoos were the only thing you could take with you in an afterlife, where they would serve as a sign of identification for family and fellow tribesmen. In southeast Asia most tattoos are done for protection.

Skin decoration thrived in Europe until the Dark Ages, when Christian beliefs concerning body modifications could get a tattoo bearer branded as a heretic. The penalties for heresy were so stiff that tattooing slowly disappeared. Nearly a thousand years passed before the art  was rediscovered by French and English navigators in the Pacific. The English interest in tattooing was stimulated by tales of John Rutherford, a gentleman captured by the Maoris in 1816. Upon his return to London several years later, tattoos covered extensive parts of his body. For years his adventures animated fashionable dinner parties to such an extent that tattooing became quite the thing to do in upper-crust circles. An aristocratic partiality for tattoos continued throughout Queen Victoria’s reign to the end of the 19th century, spreading  to the Continent and Russia, where even the Tsar and Tsarina were tattooed. Tattoo history books report that the shot that heralded the outbreak of World War I hit Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s tattooed snake.

In this age of global communication there is a renewed fascination with tattooing as an art form in the west. Tribal tattoos are the most fascinating, for these symbols once engraved into the skin of people from another age continue to speak of past civilizations. Encoded in abstract triangles, lines and circles is a forgotten wisdom about living harmoniously with nature — a message we desperately need to hear as we approach the end of the 20th century.

If you’re going to have a tattoo; make it a work of art. Many tattoo artists have art school backgrounds; but Christian trained in the old way, learning with masters. In the following interview Christian speaks about contemporary tattoo art.

Q:  How does one become a tattoo artist?

A:  In my case I began experimenting in a very rudimentary manner on myself and on friends when I was 14 or 15 years old. Several years later when in England I met a tattoo artist who accepted my presence in his studio. I went every day and watched him work. I learned a lot about the techniques. I later heard that some of the older masters could be found in Asia. So I went to Hong Kong, where once again I was accepted in a shop as an apprentice observer. During this period I continued to work on my drawing skills. Finally, after much travel in Europe to continue learning, I returned to Paris in 1986 and opened my studio.

Q:  What is the difference between a tattoo artist and someone who works in a tattoo shop?

A:  There is no “flash art” [tattoo models] on the walls of my studio. I’m not at all interested in working in a tattoo supermarket where people pick standard models to be copied. I work only with people who are highly motivated and have thought deeply about how to reflect their own life in imagery. My clients come with ideas and images. They’ve done their research beforehand. Together we work on a drawing or motif. It is a creative collaboration between client and artist. A tattoo is done together, and must be just right. The human relationship is what’s most important to me, as tattooing is an important act that is still considered sacred in some cultures. The position of the tattoo must be in harmony with the lines of the body. If it is just anywhere it will remain flat. A tattoo is decorative body art and should complement all movements. The Japanese are masters at this. Polynesians take this into account as well, for the tattoos must move with the movements of dance.

Q:  What is the most important consideration when one is considering getting a tattoo?

A:   Hygiene! This is the most critical factor. Everything must be clean and all materials, such as needles or tubes, through which the inks pass, must be sterile. It is important to know the work of the person. You want someone with a light touch, for skin is fragile and ink-bleeds can happen if the machine diffuses too much ink or the needle penetrates too deeply.

Q:   What spot is most often chosen for a tattoo?

A:  The upper shoulder blade is most popular. It’s discreet; but visible.

Q:  What is the cost of a tattoo?

A:  Prices vary, but are usually based on payment by the hour. I receive 800F for the first session, regardless of the amount of time I may spend on the work; then 600F for each additional session. A large tattoo work usually takes about eight hours to complete. The work is broken down into two- or three-hour sessions, so that the discomfort is not too great for the client.

Q:  Which sex gets the most tattoos?

A:  I see more men clients than women. However, there are increasing numbers of women choosing to have tattoos. Women have a more reflective approach. There is more originality in the artwork they envision. Women often tell me that they contemplated having a tattoo for several years before coming to see me.
Bennu’s unusual Coptic name means “phoenix” — the beautiful bird of Egyptian legend, which lives for 500 years then burns itself upon a funeral pyre and rises from the ashes. Some eight years ago she traveled to London to have a phoenix tattooed upon her shoulder. “It’s a symbol with great personal meaning for me,” she says with a smile, “and it’s my name.”

A delicate Tahitian motif encircles Sandrine’s right ankle. This romantic piece of tattoo art was created by a sweetheart, who has since returned to his tropical paradise. “I was so in love,” says Sandrine, laughing. “I liked the idea of wearing this symbol of something lasting and unique.”

Then there is the very chic Dr. E, who has dreamed of having a Polynesian motif tattooed around her wrist for several years. “It would have a special meaning for me,” she explains. “It would symbolize my love of Tahiti and Polynesian culture.” What would her patients think about it? “I could hide it under a wide watchband when at work…”

Stephanie thought about her tattoo for a long time before going to see Christian. For her first piece of tattoo art she wanted something small that symbolized the underwater world that diving and living in the Pacific had revealed to her. She and Christian worked and reworked his drawing of a seahorse until it was just as she had imagined it. Then they discussed its placement. “Let’s face it,” she sighs, “no matter how much you want a tattoo, in European culture you have to take into consideration whether people will see it or not. But once you’ve taken that giant step, it’s very hard to stay with just one tattoo.

“People are always curious about the pain,” she added. “I didn’t find that it hurt that much. It was more of a burning irritation than an experience of pain. I was more worried about the selection of an image. You want something that you can live with the rest of your life; yet you don’t want to settle for something bland. … The additional work to complete my back piece took several sessions. I loved saying goodbye to everyone at the office, and chuckling to myself that no one would ever guess I was off to a tattoo studio! The beautiful rose surrounded by ferns and tropical flowers with a bird of paradise symbolize my sense of belonging to two cultures: Europe and Polynesia. I love going about my work dressed very correctly for the business world, knowing I have a beautiful piece of art on my back.”