Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Space Needle Art

Is it art? Indisputably yes. But a more interesting question is whether perhaps the tattoo—along with its less-permanent but often more-provocative cousin, the body piercing—should be also classified as a more particular, if not more peculiar, variety of artistic expression: performance art.

That onstage genre has well earned its reputation for intellectual laziness, given how many of its practitioners self-indulgently expect their audiences to respectfully sit through, say, a deliberate consumption of a sandwich or a dramatic reading from the Yellow Pages. But the lack of creative worth is a critique hardly applicable to the many positively inventive and lovely forms which tattoos take. And performance art does share an important aspect with more respected forms of stagecraft such as theatre and magic: it inherently projects the artist's skill.

In the case of conspicuous body art, while the wearer casts forward someone else's artistry, it is nonetheless his own vision—or at least one possessed when it was acquired—which is thrust upon all whom he encounters. You don't just wear a prominent tattoo or body piercing, you display it, and maybe even show it off to anyone who doesn't squeamishly react.

The annual Evolution Tattoo Convention here in Seattle each autumn seemed, technically, an inappropriate subject for my long-running Coagula column, where an earlier version of this piece was originally published. That's because my space in the avant-garde art magazine was putatively the only text in a given issue not about art. Remembrance of Things Present instead reported on and assessed American popular culture, and as such, the largest tattoo/piercing festival in the Pacific Northwest fell squarely within the column's domain. Moreover, the prospect of mingling with hordes of illustration-covered and rod-punctured people in the Cradle of Grunge was something irresistible to a guy who, as it happens, is still bothered by a residual spot of graphite imbedded in his right palm, the result of a 1970 classroom mishap.

So more than two years before I arrived at KIRO in March 2005, while still an afternoon-drive broadcaster in Albuquerque, I headed my otherwise uninked and unpunctured body toward Seattle. My destination was the warehouse district about a mile east of The Space Needle, where I was anxious to witness considerably smaller needles working their way under the skin of some of Evolution's more adventuresome attendees.

Many of my neoconservative colleagues in newstalk radio expend considerable rhetorical energy imploring their listeners to never succumb to tattooing's increasing popularity. In presumptuously minding other people's personal business, they forget that libertarianism and individualism are values which (supposedly) animate conservative ideology. And they're also reinforcing the notion that those right-of-center politically are just a bunch of squares. I wasn't surprised to see that the unhip were not in abundance at Evolution.

One of the many engaging characters I encountered that weekend was a guy in his 20s named Mike. He sports seven or eight disparate and colorful tattoos over his legs, arms and neck. Mike first went under the vibrating needle at age 12, contends that Mom was cool with that, and fully recognizes that "it's a commitment, that's for sure. If you ever end up regretting it, you didn't do it for the right reasons."

To confirm that Mike didn't do it for some wrong reason, such as peer approval, I invoked the old desert-island scenario. When questioned if he would have done the same with his body if he'd known he spend the remainder of his days in isolation, he unhesitatingly responded in the affirmative.

The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming that the tattooing process at best hurts and at worst is excruciatingly painful. So it's impressive to note that none of the dozens of attendees I witnessed being tattooed even for a moment betrayed any of the discomfort they were unflinchingly enduring.

An entrant in one of Evolution's several tattoo contests was a 270-pound woman named Carrie, who affects a decidedly butch appearance, yet whose upper arms each display true beauty. On her left is rather stylized she-devil dominatrix, flanked on her right by something I wasn't aware tattooists can achieve, near photo-realism. The stunning right-arm pin-up employs delicate shading and resembles one of those old Playboy illustrations by Vargas—except that this long-legged vixen is bound in chains. As Carrie repeatedly flexed her arms, she talked of originally having envisioned her unnamed companions as being able to thusly pulsate in tandem, in some sort of animated dermal dance.

One of the least-festooned Evolution attendees, a thirtysomething librarian named Sean who sports three comparatively nondescript designs, delineated his personal Rule of 60: "I won't consider a tattoo if I think there's any chance I won't still like it when I'm 60 years old." He says the only factor keeping him from adding many more is a fear of what impression they might leave during future job interviews.

A striking sight among the 50-odd artist booths was a handsome fellow named Brian. But his distinctive appearance wasn't characterized by any especially elaborate tattoos, at least by this convention's standards. Rather, he stood out in that crowd due to the fact that he always dresses—including, he insists, while slinging ink at his suburban Seattle studio—in a fancy three-piece pinstriped. He explains that while he's ruined a couple suits with the inks he expertly applies to his clients, he so dresses to lend himself a unique look in his world while also nobly serving to counter the seedy image retains even in the post-Punk 21st Century.

One less well-dressed artist, who works under the single name Jher and owns a shop in Denver, wears arm tattoos which are neither illustrations nor one of those non-representational Celtic ring designs that nowadays so frequently circle arms. Instead, from his wrists up, his arms are thoroughly covered simply in black ink, save his elbows. I inquired what it is about the elbow which evidently makes the skin there either too painful or impractical to tattoo, but my curiosity turned out to be ill-placed. "Nothing", he amiably answered, "I just haven't decided what kind of tattoos to put there." He went on to describe a New Zealander colleague who has blackened his entire body below his neckline (as well as filing down his teeth to points and scarring his back in order to mimic a crocodile).

Those who came to Evolution that year to view exotic piercings were probably disappointed, since the body art displayed was mostly ink-imbued rather than metal-inserted. But the convention's biggest letdown came after my having repeatedly viewed a fascinating spectacle recycled through the weekend via video projection. The production starred a hardy guy swaying, suspended by chains from the ceiling by about a dozen barbs hooked into his shoulders. Evolution's scheduled climax - an in-person demonstration by another such Foucault's fool - never came off, for reasons which about which the genial promoter was vague. But I doubt the cancellation of the finale was due to any second-thoughts on the part of the suspendee, since Evolution was one place where no one seemed regretful about painful or permanent choices.

For my part, I don't regret politely declining a couple artists' gracious offers to adorn, gratis, my tattoo-free body. Like most journalists, I normally embrace just about any freebie. But I passed, in part because I'm not sure I wouldn't rue my choice of design twenty minutes after the stinging faded, much less twenty years hence. Does the typical tattoo wearer experience such static moods that he never tires of his colorful upper-chest tiger and instead sometimes long for a monochrome lower-back leopard? Or, for that matter, a buttock blonde or a pelvic Pistons logo?

I lived in Los Angeles during the early years of punk rock, and vividly recall a 1983 encounter with a mohawked young man outside an East Hollywood club following an Exene appearance there. Over half of the starboard side of his face was tattooed with three quite wide, dark-blue angled stripes, sargeant/chevron style. He departed on his Harley before I could approach him and inquire what band he played in, since I presumed him to be a musician.

As he roared off, all I could think of was the fellow's likely bleak future, should the creative ambitions I assumed he had eventually not pan out and end up being replaced by more practical goals. (Sure, Melville's noble savage Queequeg might have displayed copious facial tattoos which were even more grotesque, but he also never had any greater professional ambition than harpooning the likes of Moby-Dick.) This guy probably had anguished parents in some suburban home somewhere wondering where they had gone wrong with their future doctor or lawyer son.

But my perspective changed after I hung out with the invariably cheerful tattoo bearers at Evolution, people to a man and woman not merely comfortable with their "commitments", but downright delighted with them.

If tattoos are performance art, those on the face of that guy in East Hollywood certainly gave me a command performance, still haunting this member of his "audience" decades later. But maybe I figured him wrong.

That is, he may or may not have been able to eventually integrate his predilection for extreme body art into some offstage profession by, say, becoming a tattoo artist himself, or at least landing a lifetime gig at a used-CD store. But even if he never realized such a career, I'm no longer quite so certain that nowadays he can't still look in the mirror contentedly.

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