The Fine Art of Tattooing

Apprenticeships are the traditional path to becoming a tattoo artist. The masters teach you how to meticulously arrange the trays of inks and select the appropriate needles; you learn about the tattoo machine—how to take it apart and tune it for specific jobs. Often, it’s six months before you’re actually allowed to touch a machine. In some situations, it might be much longer. They teach you about bloodborne pathogens with the same strictness as a nurse or dentist. You are expected to clean up and book appointments while being fully committed to the craft. You often arrive home at 8 pm and then immediately start drawing for the lineup of the next days’ appointments. Your new vocabulary consists of gray washes, color fades and learning line weights.

Shawn Barber self portrait

Shawn Barber self portrait

It’s generally a closed profession, a tradition of skill passed down. Most have never had any formal training besides self-guided obsessions filling notebooks with Coney Island signage, and maybe a handful of art classes. There isn’t a clear curriculum to follow; each person’s path and experience can vary wildly between different shops and mentors. But what if there’s a different road to approaching the craft? How would having a strong fine arts background and degree begin to alter the profession’s form or process? I had the pleasure of speaking with a few who are expertly blending painting or illustration backgrounds with tattoo artistry.

Shawn Barber taught at some of the best art schools, The Ringling School of Art And Design in Sarasota (where he attended as an undergrad, majoring in illustration) and the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. I was first exposed to his work at the Joshua Liner Gallery in Chelsea last year. I was immediately struck by the balance of extremely personal portraits with the documentary style used to capture contemporary tattoo life. Shawn is also a successful commercial illustrator and has practiced for 15 years with clients ranging from Rolling Stone to educational textbook publishers. He founded his new studio, Memoir Tattoo, in Los Angeles with talented partner Kim Saigh in 2009. It’s a private studio with a backdoor entrance and a worldwide clientele. Just the way they want it.

Spencer by Shawn Barber

Spencer by Shawn Barber

I asked about his path to tattooing coming from an artist’s background and training. First, I wanted his take on apprenticeships. “An apprenticeship is going to give you a sense of place, respect for the past, and working in a studio around others. Young people now want to be the flavor of the month, without putting in the time and the work. I think if I came into the profession when I was 18, I would have been more fearless, but I didn’t start tattooing until later after I was well-developed as an illustrator.”

There must be so much uncertainty in switching from canvas and paper to the technically daunting medium of skin. You have to consider longevity and elasticity; some skin takes certain colors better than others. A confident artist used to the sure glide of a brush loaded with sumi ink must now be filled with trepidation.

Beatrix by Abby Williams

Beatrix by Abby Williams

Abbylyn Williams, one of the founders of Brilliance Tattoo in Boston, explained, “It was a very difficult transition for me because of the way I developed my technique as a fine artist. As an illustrator I work building up thin layers until I get the desired result and usually start with my lights and work towards the darks. In tattooing, if you work the skin too much, you’ll chew it up and cause permanent damage, and you have to start with your dark tones or else you risk staining your lighter tones. I pretty much used no black lines in my artwork, so that was a difficult to wrap my brain around as well. This is why tattooing has influenced my drawing technique.“

Elvis portrait by Abby Williams

Elvis portrait by Abby Williams

Abby at Brilliance Tattoo came from a fine arts background, graduating from the illustration department at the Rhode Island School of Design. “I consider myself both a fine artist and a tattoo artist, although, really, they seem one in the same. Tattooing has drastically influenced the way I approach fine art projects. I always had a problem simplifying in my illustrations, and in tattooing that’s the name of the game.”

Brianna Nichols, someone who’s just launching her tattoo practice at Lady Luck in New York says this of her fine art background and how she approaches tattoos: “I think the biggest difference is that I will specifically take into account things like composition and perspective and reflected light because I have been taught to pay attention to those things over the years of working in other mediums.”

Shawn Barber stresses that there are others working this way, rattling off a list of hybrid painters/illustrators/tattooists: Mike Davis in San Francisco (with whom he apprenticed), Phil Holt in Tampa, and Timothy Hoyer in Brooklyn, to name a few. “A lot of people expect my work to look painterly or with watercolor influence, but those don’t last. In reality, it’s two different mediums, painting and tattooing, I keep them separate. For me, I have to respect the tradition of crisp outline.”

These artists that blur lines between fine arts and the tattoo world are helping to expand what both can offer. What would legends “Sailor Jerry” Collins or Doc Webb think of their approach? How can a world steeped in rogue ideas and points of view collide with more formally educated tattooers? The competition will be stronger and the dialogue will be more nuanced. Barber even described a scenario where a neighboring studio holds morning critiques. If a drawing is deemed unsatisfactory by everyone, they will cancel the appointment until the tattooer is ready. This is one example of the language of the classroom informing a new approach. But, the goal is just to become a better artist, no matter the medium, with the faint hum of permanence pushing you forward.

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  1. A fascinating article. I have always been intrigued by tattoo art and the lengths people go to express themselves.
    Personally I don’t have the desire or nerve to be inked up but I really respect the incredible work you showcase.