The art of the tattoo?

  • Categories: Blog
  • Date: 15th February 2012
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What is it with tattoos and the general population? I sense it is a generational thing which I have missed. I get the rebelliousness attitude, the tribalism, a bit of doodling to overcome boredom, even getting tanked & getting tatt’d. I gather the pain can be addictive. Is it as simple as this? Or is there something more? 

Is it because tattoos add value? Are they art or just arty? A lot of what I have seen at the beach is certainly neither: both in terms of image and flesh/canvas. But raise the bar a notch, refine the imagery and the intention and tattoos seem to offer an altogether different statement.

Hayden Fowler, who shows with Gallery Barry Keldoulis in Waterloo Sydney, sat in a shop window for a week in Auckland in 2007 & was extensively tattooed by an expert. This performance and the resulting documented exhibition Call of the Wild was a personal, political and very direct protest. The choice of image and site were chosen very deliberately: a pair of extinct NZ Huia birds, once a symbol of Maori authority, made extinct by a brief fashion trend. They were painstakingly (no doubt for both tattooist & sitter) etched in Fowler’s flesh, and are lush, colourful and expansive. 

His act and inked imagery is a permanent reminder of the permanent loss of these beautiful birds. His belief was that the method and the media could hammer home the message in a far more striking and obvious way than the usual painting, photography, or ‘say’ printmaking. Jasmin Stephens writes about this work by Fowler as a “…a gesture which embodies politics with an appetite for acts of defiance.”  Her essay on this exhibition is a good read and can be found 

In a similar way, it is this “appetite for acts of defiance” which drives Wim Delvoye. Delvoye is an art star. He is internationally well recognised, collected & critiqued and currently has 2 solo exhibitions in Australia – one at MONA in Hobart, the other at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

Tattoos are among the artworks in the Sydney exhibition, though (whilst Delvoye may be tattooed himself, I haven’t seen) he does not use his own body to project these artistic acts of defiance: he uses other people’s and animal’s, at times on living creatures. Weighed up against Hayden Fowler’s commitment to the cause, this may seem to be a bit of a cop out. But art does not necessarily require the giving of one’s (or others’) own blood.

The practice of the artist using living bodies (other than his own) as canvas is somewhat irksome & raises all kinds of questions about the art, its value and how far the artist can take it. The person known as Tattoo Tim is a living, breathing, walking artwork by Delvoye who has agreed to be tattooed and to present himself for and as an exhibition at various times. He is wandering around MONA as I write. Previously Delvoye also used anaethetised live pigs however this practice was shut down in Europe because of its obvious cruelty. 

Wim Delvoye Untitled (Joker/Jesus Inside), 2007
tattooed pigskin, framed between glass 190 × 139cm
Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney
Wim Delvoye  Concrete Mixer (scale model 1:4), 2011
lasercut stainless steel, nickeled 83 × 35 × 60cm
Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

Delvoye’s tattooed artworks (see an example here) have been rendered on the skin of dead pigs. The skins have not been tanned to that of shoe quality leather: they are pretty rough – hair and all – and neatly covered with images ranging from luxury brand logos to kitsch icons to pop culture cartoons, then mounted and framed. They are fascinating: the shapes of the flayed skin, the hair – how do you tattoo around hair? – even the holes that are so obviously to do with digestive processes. But why? Why use the pig skin and tattoos as your paint and canvas? His is a subversive approach: to redefine the value of the pig and hence that of art.

Take a mental step sideways and see that Delvoye’s acts of defiance extend to his fine sculptures. High gothic, finely laser-cut metal models of a dump truck, a concrete mixer and a pergola. These are incredible! They sparkle under the lights: a maze of flying buttresses, spires and intricate lacework, and become something altogether other than what they appear to be, that of lowly trucks and a nod to suburban architecture. Here each becomes an object to be rethought, revalued and revered as never before. 

Bring your euros for this show – enough to fill a dump truck. The value of this art is high!

Delvoye is also responsible for Cloaca Professional, aka the ‘poo machine’ at MONA in Hobart. I’ve seen it twice, once in action; once constipated. Neither times did it move me (pardon the pun). It doesn’t recreate the real number 2’s, rather an implication of it and the process: ingestion, digestion and the inevitable, excretion (at 3pm each day). Everyone gets the regularity bit.

It’s like a mini laboratory and is as clinical and restrained as one. And again, very basic functions elevated to a status way beyond their station.

You’ve got to visit MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. It is a blast and it feels so good to be blasted. But enough for this week; more tips on what to see in Hobart another time.

BTW also on at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery is Tony Clark’s small exhibition Buehnenbilder. Lovely.

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