Sailors brought them to us from pre-history and the South Pacific, and before that from the Far East along the silk route. Or maybe for us it was the lineage and influence of the Vikings, the Celts. Exotic outsiders. Perhaps more recently the circus freaks, covered head to toe, defiantly signalling their absolute refusal of the everyday. Showing a window onto another world, outside of the rat race, the run of the mill, the grind. Or maybe it was about the outsiders looking in on bourgeois society from another place. The embodiment of the spectacular paradigm that would infiltrate every human relationship way before Guy Debord got hold of the idea. Then or course it was prisoners. Army. Navy. Always a matter of life and death. Nailing your colours to the mast, so to speak, offering your skin under the needle. But at the same time still branding your group as outsiders from normal society, a clan that shared knowledge and experience that ‘normal’ people didn’t know about, somehow different from all the rest.
So of course, it’s a perfect space for artists to inhabit. Perfect for Artists as outsiders. Tattooing was revolutionized by Samuel O'Reilly's invention of the electric tattoo machine during the last decade of the 19th century. The time required to complete a design went from hours to minutes, moving the art away from personally conceived, hand picked designs towards stock choices that were displayed like art on the walls of the tattoo parlor. Maybe the idea of artists making tattoos are interesting because they reach back to the earlier, original impetus of the process
I got my first in ’93 (Skull/Born to Lose) but I got the big one that says Real Life in ’94. I wanted to sign on for life. Make a commitment. A little known fact is that the artist/critic Thomas Lawson paid for it. He and Susan Morgan had been publishing their Real Life Magazine since ‘79 and were signing off with a final issue. Number 23. I was the cover star. They paid for it in exchange for using my image on the cover. It just felt right. Perfect. I wanted to take on the mantle. Sieze the bull by the horns, or something. To paraphrase Gilbert and George, to be with art was all I asked. I wanted to signal all my life in art to the world. (Though, even then I remember the tattooist, Stuart Wrigley at Terry’s Tattoo, Glasgow telling me they regularly had guys running in asking for something quick because their bus was leaving in 15 minutes and they only had a tenner—I mean - for fuck sake?) Anyway, I got mine because I knew my work was all over the place formally. I wanted to unify it somehow. I thought this idea would form an umbrella to hold over the diverse output that has characterised my work since. And in a way it has. I wanted to create this Real Life character who would wander through the work, through the decades, through a life, searching for something you could never put into words. To investigate this paradigm, from under the skin of one individual out into the world. I also wanted to demonstrate my commitment to my Real Life, which paradoxically I have found is not real in the way you might imagine. Nevertheless I have sometimes had cause to wonder since if this was a deft idea or merely a daft idea.
Because like everything else in the big rancid blancmange pudding of global capital it appears that 5000 years of tattoo history have become well and truly assimilated, absorbed, sanitised, prettified, nullified, made meaningless, cleaned up, eviscerated, sucked in, blown out, defused—and all in a decade or so—Wow. Well-done Pan-National global capital. It’s good to see you’re still as fucking smooth as ever. So what does that mean for artists tattoos? I think it means forget it. It’s over. If you haven’t started already I wouldn’t bother. You’ll just look like a cultural sub-footballer’s wife wannabe.
Is there a future? What of the old and the new in artist tattoos ? We should now look to the example Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s ArtFarm project where he has been tattooing pigs since the early nineties for inspiration and guidance.
Delvoye describes it thus—“ I started in 1992, did one or two pigs in 1994 and in 1995 I tattooed 15, but they were dead pigs; I got the skins from slaughterhouses. I started to tattoo live pigs in 1997. I was interested in the idea of the pig as a bank—a piggy bank. I didn’t have the concept formulated yet, but I decided to place some small drawings onto these living organisms and let them grow. From the beginning, there was the idea that the pig would literally grow in value, but I also knew that they were considered pretty worthless. It’s hard to make something as prestigious as art from a pig. It’s not kosher.”
So there you have it. It’s hard to argue with that; it really gives the art world everything it deserves. So ugly, so beautiful. And all at the same time. But. Why? Why? Why? It makes me wonder. Even with the images of stuffed tattooed pigs ringing in my eyeballs, why do I still catch myself imagining new forms of ink on my body every now and then? Am I still searching for something definite on whose form in ink I can metaphorically nail my colours to the mast of in the shifting sands of twenty-first century desiccated living? Is it a God? Satan? Children? Love? Music? Maybe in a world that’s gone way beyond belief we are all still searching for the evidence of something, something true, something definite, something real—Real Life. Hey - maybe the old umbrella’s still keeping the rain out—maybe my project’s still working after all.
Come on—lets get down to Terry’s and celebrate with a new tattoo.