Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Trip to the Cow Palace

Lesson I: TAT-TOO: Tattoo comes from the Tahitian word tatau. Tattooing involves injecting colored ink beneath the epidermis with tiny punctures through the skin’s surface.

The word “tattoo” was first introduced into Europe in the 1770s by Captain James Cook in his journal that described the Tahitian natives:

Both sexes paint their bodies, Tattow as it is called in their language, this is done by inlaying the colour of black under their skins in such a manner as to be indelible. -Cook, July 1769.

Where is this Going?: Last Friday, I went to the famous Cow Palace to check out the Tattoo Expo. Although I’m still considered a “virgin” in the Tattoo World, I find tattoos fascinating and I wanted to learn more about this fashionable form of art. I thought that the best way to experience and learn about this type of body decoration was to go to the Expo and to see first hand how one goes about getting a tattoo as well as how the tattooists work with this medium. I originally wanted to dive right into discussing my experience at the Expo, but after talking to people about my experience, I realized that a lot of people don't know how historical and cultural the art of tattooing has been worldwide. I decided that I would try to inform people of its long history and then I'll share the pictures and a few things I learned from the Expo. I will only focus on the highlights and attempt to make it as brief as possible, but you can skip the history and go to the Tattoo Expo section if you like.

Cliff Notes Version of the History: Before tattooing even began, body painting was considered the earliest form of body art. Popular pigments of the Paleolithic time were: red (commonly representing blood, vitality, mortality, and fertility); white (often associated with rituals, mourning, purification, and the supernatural); and black (typically representing impurity and evil). Depictions of such body paintings can be found on cave paintings illustrating hunters, men, women, and shamans. Different body painting patterns, geometrical shapes, and colors often represented ceremonies, rituals, tribes, gender, and shamanic experiences. With time, tattooing became the new fad.

Sahara rock painting, Tassili N'Ajjer, Algeria. Dots and lines represent
tattooing and body paint used in ceremonies, as identification,
and for shamanic experiences.

Body Painting vs Tattooing:
Body painting is temporary and is, therefore, often used for ceremonies and rituals.
Tattooing is permanent. Tattoos would represent one’s age, rank and lineage, expeditions, initiations, rights entitled, unusual personal events, and one's identity between communities and as individuals. Tattoos were also associated with religion, shamanism, healing, protection, and good luck.

Sahara rock painting, Tassili N'Ajjer, Algeria.

The Way of the Tattoo –Mastering Technique Based on Culture:
Different cultures and tribes have used, and continue to use, different tattooing techniques. Most tribal cultures would use instruments consisting of comb-shaped needles made of bone or even sharp, pointed teeth. These tools would then be dipped into a concoction of soot, charcoal, or other pigments mixed with oils such as walnut or pine. The tattooists would then drive the instrument into the skin, often using other tools as a mallet in order to puncture holes through the skin. Some cultures and tribes, such as the Oceanic tribes, used a needle and thread as a tool. After coating the needle with soot and oil, the needle would be threaded through the skin while following a desired pattern.

One of the oldest preserved skin tattooings from
a frozen, mummified body. The skin of this man's
hand has animal figures. Pazyryk burial mound,
Upper Altai, Siberia.

Tracing the Tattoo Epidemic from the Stone Age to Modern Times:
Before the Stone Age, carved human figurines covered with tattoos were dated back to 6,000 B.C. Two-thousand years later, figurines with facial and body markings, which represented tattoos, were found in an Egyptian tomb. Tattoos for Egyptians were reserved for women, specifically prostitutes, dancers, and singers. Men with tattoos in Egypt represented Libyan or Nubian prisoners.

By 2,000 B.C., tattooing spread from the Middle East to the Pacific Islands. There are two theories about how this spread, but I’ll skip that because I’m trying to make this brief –if you want to know, post a comment and I’ll let you know.

Japan, specifically Osaka, had many tattoo revolutions starting from the 5th Century B.C. Beginning as decorative and for religious purposes, the practice of tattooing eventually died and didn’t resurface again until the 13th Century B.C. At this point, tattoos were only intended to mark criminals and the “socially-undesirable.” Japan went through many phases and different types of tattooing styles that greatly influenced the types of Western tattoos existing today.

There has been a lot of controversy among the art-know-it-alls who argue over whether or not tattoos are considered “art.” Some people argue that the true tribal and spiritual connections have been lost, because the original intent from the past has become commercialized and even “trashy” and “overly erotic.” Others disagree and believe that people are passionate and serious about the types of tattoos they receive. I think, ultimately, it depends on the person who receives the tattoo and the person who is criticizing the tattoo. It is art no matter what you get.
Whatever goes behind the tattoo can be compared to how artists have been categorized into specific art movements. For instance, postmodernists can easily become pigeonholed into the “trashy” group, because they may not have the same original artistic motives as the impressionists or neoclassicists that people have studied for years. As for spectators, most people who have studied the famous art movements of the impressionists and neoclassicists have learned to love and appreciate these styles, which may cause some people to only appreciate art that follows these formulas. In the end, it all comes down to one’s own opinion and how open-minded one is about learning and understanding nontextbook and “nontraditional art.”

The Tattoo Expo: I didn’t realize before coming to the Expo that there seems to be two types of tattoo groups:

1. the “I only get sentimental and meaningful tattoos” group
2. the “I just get souvenirs and whatever” group

I respect both groups because I see the beauty, passion, and appreciation that each group has about their tattoos and about creating those tattoos for others. Each tattoo is unique and it tells you a little about the person based on their interests, beliefs, and artistic appreciations.

I also learned and heard both humorous and interesting stories about being an apprentice. Some people informed me that an apprenticeship can last for four years. Along with the learning, hard work, and dedication to keeping the workstations clean, apprentices also go through an initiation process. This requires making coffee runs, being tricked into getting tattoos in painful spots, and almost being a dancing monkey. Everybody goes through it. As long as you suck it up and don’t take it too personally, one of the other perks of becoming a tattooist is looking forward to doing the same thing to the next apprentice.

Enough with me boring you all to death, I’m finally going to show you pictures.

This artist had a mixture and combination of Eastern and Western influences.

Joel enjoys tattooing Japanese and Asian styled pieces.

Rush prefers tattooing the Japanese and Asian themed pieces.

Jason does piercings, which was also offered at the Expo.
Jason also informed me about a piercing called "stretching,"
which involves stretching the earlobes with ear spools or ear gauges.

One of Jason's tattoos is about how people are constantly evolving and changing.

Kaysea showed me her rocking tattoos and educated me on how different areas of the tongue hurt more than others when getting certain piercings.

Baba and his artwork. Baba is an award winning artist and the master sponsor of the Expo.

Melissa tattooing Paul a memorial piece dedicated to his
friends he had served with while in the military.

Melissa does amazing portraiture, black and grey,
and Aztec pieces.

There were other vendors at the Expo too.
Kristi was selling massage chairs as well as her
own photography. She also sold jackets and purses
made from sewing on pieces of recycled scraps.

The Aftermath of the Tattoo: Now that you've gotten your tattoo and your piercing, what do you do about the pain and the healing process? Fortunately, there was a booth set up with H2Ocean -The First in First Aid. Charles Young explained and demonstrated how the products worked. It’s a spray that contains sea salt, lysozyme, and sea kelp –natural ingredients that nourish dermal cells, kill bacteria, and improve circulation and skin elasticity.

Before and after pictures of wound treatment.

You can even use it for veterinary care too!

Thank you: All the tattooists and apprentices I spoke with were very kind, resourceful, and talented. Thank you all for giving me a moment of your time to talk with me, answer my questions, and to allow me to take pictures!!! Thanks again!!!!!

For More Information: If you have any questions about the tattooing history or would like me to go into more depth about something, post me a comment! I enjoyed learning about tattoos and tattooing and would love to elaborate more about the subject! I tried to keep everything brief because I was concerned mostly about boring people.

Gelder, K. (2007). Subcultures: Cultural histories and social practice. New York: Routledge.

Hambly, W. D. (1925). The history of tattooing and its significance. London: H. F. G. Witherby.

Sanders, C. (1989). Customizing the body: The art and culture of tattooing. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Thevoz, M. (1984). The illusions of reality: The painted body. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

Virel, A. (1979). Decorated man: The human body as art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.


  1. Tattoo is a hard type of art to classify as fine art. In a way it's very customer oriented and not driven completely by the artist. I think part of it is also that no matter how much a tattoo artist tries to invent new ways of tattooing there hasn't been one popular enough to make a bold move that breaks out of the tattoo classification into something else bigger. Also many of the tattoo images are derived from other real art or well known symbols (the contemporary ones). If I was a tattoo artist I'd shut and create something more selfish and less slavish.

  2. hahaha shit when i saw those pictures I thought it was your arm, i was like whhaat-thee... but then i read ur blog. lol

  3. I see where you’re coming from, and that’s why tattooing is controversial when comparing it to an art. Doing research and going to the Tattoo Expo made me realize that the art of tattooing is more complicated than most people give credit. How is it different from an artist being privately or publicly commissioned to paint a portrait, build a sculpture, or create a mural? Being paid to do something may leave any artist with some boundaries or expectations from the consumer, but the artist still has their own artistic penmanship, style, and creativity to work with. In fact, the artist also has the right to say “no” to the project all together if they truly do not believe in or want to be represented with a certain type of request.

    After talking with the tattoo artists, most agreed that they will do whatever is requested of them because they are “a tattoo artist.” However, I did find some people who said that they only do a certain style or work in a specific subject matter (e.g., only black and grey scales, only Asian art, only portraiture, only writing, and so forth). Yes, this would definitely limit the tattooist’s income, but some people are so passionate about what they do that consumers know where to go when they want a tattoo in a specific style.

    In regard to the subject matter of tattoos, yes, most are symbols and themes that have been done a countless number of times. There are also some people who walk into tattoo shops with an idea, but they let the artist create their own image and interpretation. Regardless, there is a certain penmanship that each artist gives to their tattoos that really has to do with one’s style, creativity, and talent. I have seen multiple tattoos of the same image and I can say that it is possible to get a really bad tattoo. When I asked people about their tattoos, a lot of people told me the name and even location of the artists who did their tattoos before even explaining the tattoos themselves. There is a lot of pride and because of the competition, you may also notice that a lot of today’s artists are always perfecting and improving their skills.

    In the end, it all just depends on how you look at things and how you perceive art. That’s the best thing about art –there’s never a right or wrong answer!