Archive for the ‘Tattoos’ Category

Head to Toe

There's something buzzing in my ear...

There’s something buzzing in my ear…

My tattoo training continues. I’ve just tattooed a woman from head to toe – no: literally.

She came in to have me do a rosary on her foot. That was hard enough – awkward position, all those tiny little beads, a heart-shaped pendant right on the bones, all the straight lines on the cross; nightmare. Actually, it wasn’t too bad – apart from the heart. I find that shape difficult enough at the best of times, but on the top of someone’s foot it was pretty rough going. But I mustn’t be too hard on myself. I am still learning, and anyone who comes in to the studio for me to work on them knows that I’ve only had days worth of experience. So anyway, I wrapped up the rosary – not entirely happy, not entirely unhappy. That’s a fairly typical state of mind at the end of one of these sessions – bear in mind that I usually have absolutely no idea what I’m coming in to do on any given morning. It could be a piece of tribal, it could be a peacock feather, it could be a skull – it could be a rosary…

Or it could be a butterfly behind the ear. Yep – that’s what I had to do next. “Oh, you finished that rosary pretty quickly,” Stuart said as I bandaged up the woman’s foot. “Fancy doing another?”

So I did this butterfly behind the woman’s ear. It was a first time for both of us – first time me tattooing anywhere like that, and first time her being tattooed on her skull, too. She assumed it was going to hurt like hell – I assumed it was going to be a mess and a nightmare all rolled into one. Actually, it wasn’t what either of us expected at all. The woman said that it didn’t really hurt very much at all – just buzzed a lot. “Like a bee trapped in my ear,” she said, a slightly puzzled expression on her face. And although the skin bled quite a bit, being part of the scalp, it was actually really easy to get good lines, as the skin was stretched nice and cleanly over the flat pan of bone behind the mastoid process. We had to tape her ear down, which made her look curiously like she was in surgery (and which put her and Rena in hysterics), and I had quite an awkward time of getting in there to work. But that aside, it was actually a fairly easy job – and I got good, clean lines as a result, and some nice colours, too (three shades of pink/purple and even some white). Stuart’s seen it since it was done, and he says it looks very nice indeed.

Now what on earth am I going to be asked to do next week??

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Inked! My traditional clipper ship sets sail.

Inked! My traditional clipper ship sets sail.

Some people talk of tattoos in terms of identity, initiation or status; there’s a lot of academic writing about sub-cultures and body image. But actually, tattoos are just a lot of fun. I can say that now, since not only am I moving on with my tattoo apprenticeship, I’ve now got a tattoo of my own!

Tattooed on Thursday – tattooing on Friday. So did I work any differently on Friday knowing now much better how it felt? Well, yes and no. Rena said I mustn’t ‘pull back’, knowing exactly how it would feel to the person I was working on. I’m still learning consistency: too shallow is as bad as too deep. But I think what I did certainly come away with – apart from the obviously much more personal understanding of how it felt – was an appreciation of how much the person being tattooed puts into any given session.

Because there’s no doubt about it – there’s pain involved. Sometimes more, sometimes less – and it varies across any given patch of skin or area of muscle and bone. As a result, it’s tiring. I sat there for four hours getting tattooed – and by the end of it felt like I’d been sitting there for four hours doing the tattooing! So, yet another insight into the curious and unique artistic partnership that is at the heart of this creative medium.

Of course, now that I’ve had my first tattoo, the real question is… what am I going to have next?

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Oink! First pig skin tattoo.

Oink! First pig skin tattoo.

Back in Fineline Tattoos today – working on a piece of pig skin, this time.

This is my first pig skin tattoo (although it appears to be the pig’s second…), and it’s a lot easier to learn on than artificial skin. The problem with the artificial skin is that it simply doesn’t behave like real skin at all. So it’s fine for initially coming to grips with the gun, but it’s useless when you need to learn how ink and skin behave together. Practising on living volunteers is fine, too – you learn how to work with a living, feeling (ouch!) person. But because you’ve got to wait for the skin to heal before you see the results, there’s an odd lag between doing the work and seeing what it looks like. That makes judging your technique as a beginner really difficult.

But pig skin doesn’t just behave like real skin – it is real skin. Not only does it stretch as real skin stretches, it holds the ink as real skin does, too. But because it doesn’t bleed, it means that there’s no healing “lag”, meaning that you can practice your lines and actually judge real results.

Of course, it’s not perfect. It doesn’t have the deep resilience of living skin with muscle and bone beneath it, and it’s tougher than human skin. And because it’s cold from the fridge, it’s kind of creepy to work on. And despite being chilled, on a warm June day, with a lamp on the table, the lump of skin soon begins to develop an indefinable butchers’ shop aroma of its very own…

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My new trick - flash (top), on the skin (middle), finished tattoo (bottom)

My new trick – flash (top), on the skin (middle), finished tattoo (bottom)

It’s true what they say: it’s hard work teaching an old dog a new trick – and for me, tattooing is still a very new trick.

And after twenty years as an illustrator, I’ve discovered I’m a very old dog indeed. It’s funny, but I hadn’t really considered how little I’ve had to actually learn in those past twenty years. Don’t get me wrong – I certainly have learned a great deal: I learned how to draw in pencil and ink, I learned how to draw finds, how to draw reconstructions, how to paint, how to work digitally, and finally how to paint digitally. But it’s always been learning of a particular – and similar – kind.

I hope this isn’t art-blasphemy, but all two-dimensional media are pretty much the same sort of thing. The end results on the paper or canvas will vary according to the medium, but ultimately it’s all dependent on the way your hand and eye work to create the mark. I’m pretty comfortable in most two-dimensional media – I’ve learned to use most of them in the course of two decades’ illustration: paint, pencil, ink, chalks, etc. Yes, you need a bit of time to get into each one, but you can: because the mark-making process is essentially the same

Not so with tattooing. Here, the mark-making process is not yours to control – it’s a complex, second-by-second physical relationship between you and another person. It’s not like art at all – it’s like dancing (and as some people know only too well, I’m not a very good dancer). Not only are you working on a ‘canvas’ that’s unlike pretty much any other surface used for two-dimensional work, you’re having to dance with the position, musculature, skin-depth, skin-quality, twinges and twitches of pain, sweating and a thousand other micro-shifts in your working environment.

Now, I’m perfectly happy to do this with pen or pencil. In this regard, that ever-changing working milieux is no different to that when you’re tracing painted wall plaster in the 100-degree heat, or stone-money discs in bat-infested caves: you know your mark-making process, you know your medium, you understand your subject – you get on with it.

But trying to learn under these conditions is another matter!

Yesterday I did my first proper tattoo. Up until now I’ve only ever been working on artificial skin (like tattooing a Replicant). Last week I did a couple of hours filling-in of tribal, and the week before I did another two hours on Neil doing grey-shading (which has come out nicely, by the way). But yesterday I did my first complete tattoo on Sarah – and did I ever feel like an old dog with a very new trick!

To be fair, it certainly wasn’t a complete disaster, and Sarah knew completely what she was letting herself in for. And the parts that went well, I was pleased with. The finished tattoo isn’t actually all that bad, but of course I can only see the bits that didn’t work. And even a generous person wouldn’t mistake it for anything other than the work of a complete beginner!

In my defence, too, it was a very difficult first piece: the design – a sweet commemorating a much-loved dog – was full of long curves, it had a name in the middle, and it was on the back of the neck – not an easy place to work on at the best of times. There was also, inevitably, something not quite right with my gun (even Rena said she couldn’t work with it, so lent me hers, which was much, much better), and I was using very small liner needles – 5 and 7 – which showed up every possible imperfection. But these excuses can only possibly cover about 30% of the problem – the rest of it was sheer old doggedness. Not wanting to sound to Yoda-ish, but it was very much a process of un-learning everything I already know. If I was drawing this sweet, it wouldn’t be a problem (in fact, it wasn’t a problem: I designed and drew the flash for it!). Heck, I could draw it with a charred stick on the side of a mountain in the middle of a howling gale and not even break sweat – you’d expect that with twenty years of experience. But of course, I wasn’t drawing it – I was tattooing it, and that’s a different kettle of fish all together.

Am I downhearted? Hardly. This is day one, week one – I’ve got years left to go! If anything, learning as much as I did yesterday has only made me even more determined. Every week, I’ll learn something new – every week I’m one tattoo closer to twenty years’ worth of tattooing experience. It’s an odd feeling, this starting from scratch again, but it’s actually extremely interesting – it reminds me of what it was like drawing my first piece of Samian, or my first Cypriote milk bowl, or my first neolithic figurine – and getting it wrong. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but because I’ve stayed in my two-dimensional illustration comfort zone for such a long time, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be so much a beginner and get things so very wrong.

Don’t get me wrong – I am consistently challenged by illustration, even after twenty years of doing it. I don’t know every technique, I’m not proficient in every medium, and I’m always learning something new with every project. But it’s new in the sense that it’s new ways to push existing skills and understanding; it’s learning how to do my old trick in new ways. Tattooing is my new trick – and will be for a long time yet. It’s this different newness that’s so rewarding.

In twenty years’ time, no doubt I’ll be able to tattoo a full Japanese sleeve with a rusty nail and a pots of poster paint in the middle of an Atlantic gale. Along the way I will have learned how to deal with the recalcitrant guns, the fading inks, the badly-lit studios, the blunt needles, the twinges and twitches, the sweat, the complaints, the changes-of-mind-halfway-through. I’ve got all that learning ahead, and I can’t wait – after all, that’s how I learned all my old tricks in the first place.

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Lines (iv) - John G. Swogger, 2013.

New Lines (iv) – John G. Swogger, 2013.

It must officially be summer (despite the grey skies) because I’m back at Fine Line tattooing again. I began this past week with some tidying-up work on the shoulder part of a Japanese sleeve – fixing some clouds and adding-in some colour that had been missed. And to celebrate my return to the studio, Rena and Stuart had bought me my very own gun – a lighter-weight liner/shader that’s a good machine to start on.

Not only has it been great to get back to work on real skin, but it’s been interesting to return to tattooing in the context of my other current projects. The whole comics and archaeology thing seems to be really taking off, which means that I’m exploring comics as a medium that bit more closely – and seeing lots more graphic and visual-communication parallels between the two. I’m also returning to the tattoo studio at a time when I’m doing more of these Japanese woodblock-inspired prints for exhibitions with the Inside Out art group, and again, it’s been interesting to explore parallel lines of praxis between the two.

Because just as each area I work in has its own separate and unique methodologies and mechanics, so they also overlap. It’s these areas of connection and contrast that I find particularly rewarding: a chance to draw lines between one thing and a very different other.

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'Au: Tattooing implements from Samoa - appropriately pronounced "Ow"?

‘Au: Tattooing implements from Samoa – appropriately pronounced “Ow”?

Got up to the Bishop Museum this week, to their excellent and recently refurbished Polynesian and Hawaiian galleries.

Both featured an extensive collection of material, nicely-displayed and with very good and signing and interpretation. In one of the cases was a small group of tattooing implements from Samoa. Far too dark to take photographs, but here are a few sketches from the case.

My apprenticeship at Fineline Tattoos begins properly in a fortnight’s time, so tattooing is much on my mind at the moment! There were some fascinating examples of tattoos from the Marquesas Islands in the Bishop Museum, and from Indonesia in the Honolulu Academy of Art. It got me thinking a bit about traditional tattoos on Palau.

A few comments came in to a post of mine here several months ago, saying how “traditional” tattoos seem to have vanished from Palau. One person remembered their grandparents with tattoos, and sent a link to some Japanese anthropological drawings from the ?1920s up on the web. I’d be interested in knowing if anyone else remembers “traditional” tattoos from Palau, and if anyone knows of more photographs or drawings of old Palauan tattoos.

Is it possible – or ethical – to revive such a traditional art? How does one find new meaning for an artform whose social and cultural context is now “lost”? How does such an artform adapt to find new, contemporary meanings and contexts? Is there an example in the revivals of other Polynesian tattooing traditions – Maori, Hawaiian, etc.? Or is there a precedent closer to home in the approach taken by Hisakatsu Hijikata and the evolution of the Palauan Storyboards?

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After 33 years, there’s colour in that rose again!

I’ve been thinking a bit more about doing my first tattoo on Neil earlier today.

As artists, our practice constantly evolves. We are always finding new ways of working – whether expanding our repertoire of skills and applications in a single chosen medium, or extending skills and ideas into new media. Creativity knows few boundaries, and if we choose to do so, we can move from watercolour to installation, collage to pen-and-ink – all in pursuit of some particular idea or specific visualisation. Sometimes we move from the visual to other arts – poetry, performance, dance, music; again, all in pursuit of ideas and visualisations that have captured our imagination or our intellect.

I have worked in many media over the years, but none of them has really ever been quite the same as tattooing.

When we talk of painters working with their canvas, we are talking the application of brush to canvas and the response of the surface to the mark of the artist. When we talk of sculptors working with their wood or stone, we are talking about understanding the layers and grain of the material and how they respond to the working tools or blades.

But in tattooing, “working with” means literally that: a practice that takes place alongside and in cooperation with another person without whom the work cannot be completed – or, indeed, even begun. I’ve been working up until now on artificial skin – but that’s not tattooing: simply using a tattoo gun and tattoo inks is not tattooing. But sitting in a chair, working with another person’s living skin – that’s tattooing, and it makes it unlike any media I’ve ever worked in before.

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