Title Card: You wrote a thesis on the relationship between tattooing and art, can you tell us about your perspective on this?
Matt Lodder: Absolutely. My PhD was at the University of Reading in 2010, and it’s called Body Art: Body Modification as Artistic Practice. I’m really interested in…actually the metaphors of art, right? We all understand this vernacular phrase “body art” in terms of what it means. Tattooing, body piercing, sometimes cosmetic surgery gets rolled into that as well. And it kind of makes some kind of intuitive sense. I think we all kind of understand it’s the production of a mark on the surface or in the creation of something out of the body’s raw materials.
But not really many art professionals, or any art professionals really, have though through what this might mean for art practice and art theory. How can we think about tattooing as an art form? If we do think about it as an art form, what are the consequences of that for the ways tattooing is normally understood?
So for example one of the really interesting problems is the question of authorship, because most academic writing about tattooing presumes tattooing is, if you like, authored by the person who wears the tattoo. So there’s lots of things about meaning, about the construction of of identity, about the expression of deviance.
Completely elided in those discussions, which comes from academic anthropologists and psychologists and medical professionals, is the role of the tattoo artist. And when you start thinking about that and how tattoos are actually produced, and how tattooists talk about their work, and exhibit their work in their portfolios, and the relationship they undergo with a client, and how that eventual work is produced, you end up with a much more complicated story. And it’s a story which I think art history as a set of disciplines can make more sense of than these other more medicalized disciplines.
The other thing that this artistic metaphor, when you pick at it, you reveal, is that again for most intents and purposes in other academic disciplines, tattooing is a phenomenon. So it gets written as “why would you do that do yourself?” and then whole screeds, whole books about all tattooing as a kind of phenomenon. Every tattoo is the same, phenomenologically.
Whereas from an art historical point of view, and almost from a common sense point of view, someone hand-poking themselves with (as my old bus driver did) a Wham! logo, and someone traveling to Switzerland to see Filip Leu to get a whole back piece done, they’re not the same thing. And they’re obviously not the same thing. The motivation is different, the systems of production are different, the reception of them is very different. But if you read a lot of academic writing on tattooing, you don’t get the sense of that kind of broad, what I want to call art historical or visual cultural, difference. So that was what the work was about really, probing at that metaphor of art.
Title Card: Are recent museum exhibitions on tattooing or featuring fine art by tattooists on canvas, paper, and other mediums instead of skin, giving tattoos new dimensions and perspectives?
Lodder: Well, these shows are interesting. They have a lot of prestige in a way. There have been tattooists who’ve been exhibiting their work in galleries in those kinds of formats that you talk about. Photography, print, drawings, occasionally even artifacts of the tattoos themselves, stencils and prints and things. That’s been happening at least since the 1980s. In fact there’s some examples even earlier than that.
But I think what’s interesting about the shows is that there’s a rhetoric around these shows which sort of say tattooing is artistic. Now, what I think is quite interesting about those shows and why I think occasionally… I mean, I really love the Somerset House show. It’s fantastic and the work in it is incredible. But it doesn’t actually feature any tattoos in it. So the actual artistic status of the tattoo itself, on the body, in the world, is something which I think is a more interesting and a much more difficult problem. This is something I’ve written about as well in my PhD, because I think if we’re going to take tattooing seriously as an art form, then we have to understand it as an art form outside of these kind of contexts. It can’t just be art if it’s hanging on the wall of a museum. What I find interesting is when the responses people have to tattooing in the world are actually really similar to the responses people have to other forms of art-making. And we can theorize those without worrying about it being in a museum or not.
I know a lot of tattooists are kind of skeptical of institutions and worried about what being in a museum says about the practice. That is something I think is really important, and I think it’s really good that the talents of these people, these artists, are shown. That we can hang these things on walls in an exhibit and say, “Hey look, there’s a huge range of stuff. there’s a volume of stuff.” But I think what’s most fundamentally interesting for me is the tattoo in the world, and the experience of seeing tattoos in the world, whether or not they’re inside a museum.
There’s a really good example of that. There’s a great gag in Punch magazine 1915, a hundred years ago. The image is of all these kind of guys with their shirts off, big curly mustaches, standing up on platforms. And there’s sort of a crowd and they’re peering at the people on the platforms, and they’ve got guidebooks. And the caption underneath says “Simultaneously with the private view at the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of Tattooists opens their summer show.”
So this idea of tattoos as art is not a new idea. It’s a hundred years old. But what I love about that image is in the picture there’s a Sergeant Major who’s not part of the exhibit; he’s not standing there with his shirt off. But he’s rolling up his sleeve to show someone in the crowd his tattoos. And that kind shows that the idea of a “Royal Society of Tattooists” having an exhibition is kind of a gag, but the idea of seeing tattoos in the world an appreciating them aesthetically and in all the ways that we understand other forms of art is probably a much more rich way of thinking about it.
Title Card: What do you think about modern artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons creating tattoos?
Lodder: That’s something that got a nice, deep set of precedents, possibly back into the 1980s, but there’s a good example…well, actually people have been getting tattoos of artworks since there’s been professional tattooing. There was a really famous tattooed lady in London called Emma deBurgh, who was an American, and she had “The Last Supper” across her back. One commentator reported, because she’d put on a bit of weight, that it made Jesus a bit fat as well when she was showing off. And there are examples of people getting tattoos of Constables and of Joshua Reynolds portraits and stuff throughout the 19th century.
In the early 90s, in 1994, there was a show at a little independent gallery in Hackney called The Roadside Attraction Gallery. They got loads of artists, including Wim Delvoye, Sarah Lucas, David Shrigley, several of the other YBAs were involved as well. And they produced basically drawings, sketches for tattoos, and they were tattooed on on “human canvases,” so to speak. And then they were exhibited in the Barbican, where the people who had the tattoos lined up for one night and they did a private view. That’s been going on for twenty years.
After that, Wim Delvoye did a really famous piece called “Tim,” where he tattooed the back of a Swiss guy called Tim Steiner. The tattoo was done by someone else but Wim signed it, and then they sold the piece to a German gallery for €70,000. [They] split the profit, so Wim Delvoye the artist got €35,000 and Tim got €35,000 on the condition that he now has to stand around in his underpants a couple of times a year at the behest of the collector. There’s great photo of him standing next to a label with people peering at him.
So this idea of artists producing tattoo designs is nothing new. Really interesting because it does also complicate the medium of the tattoo because this is almost the same problem that the Somerset House show has. Is it the image that’s important? Or is there something about the materiality of the tattoo which transforms a particular image into something different? There was a case in Oklahoma about five, six years ago where there were some quite restrictive zoning laws on where tattoo shops could be opened. And this artist sues the city saying they were interfering with his free speech rights, his First Amendment rights to be an artist and they were looking down at him.
There was some precedent to that back in the 80s. Another tattoo artist called Spider Webb had tried something similar. He’d been banned from tattooing in New York because of a hepatitis outbreak, went and tattooed in front of MoMA, and called the police, tried to get himself arrested, got arrested, went to court. The judge threw it out and says, even if tattooing in an art and I’m not sure it is, I’m not sure we should allow that to overrule other concerns of the city.
But twenty-five, twenty-six years later, this case in Oklahoma went to court and the defense on the behalf of the city was, if this guy’s an artist why is he not just selling t‑shirts or doing posters? We’re not interfering with his artistic practice because he can still draw on whatever he wants, just not skin and not within x‑100 meters of a church or a school or whatever it was. The judge actually said in the case there’s something materially different about a design on skin and a design on paper or on a t‑shirt. So that was in essence the ruling that overturned the zoning laws in that particular jurisdiction.
And I think that’s really interesting, because again it gives you something to think about. There are whole academic books about tattooing which have nothing in them about the images. Where these images come from, where they’re produced, how they’re related to broader visual cultures, and actually what them being tattooed on the skin does, as a process. So I think we have to be careful of reifying any artist who scribbles on a bit of paper and then declares it to be a tattoo, because I think there’s something more interesting about the relationship between a tattoo artist producing a work designed for skin in consultation with a client, which you don’t get by just transferring an image drawn on a different medium onto the skin without any of that kind of thought.
Title Card: Have public perceptions of people with tattoos altered over the last 30 years, and if so what are they currently?
Lodder: This sense of the perception of tattooed people is something which really interests me as a historian, mainly because it seems it’s such a common trope. I work primarily on what I call the professional era of tattooing, so the late 19th century when tattoo shops first opened to the present day. And through that whole period, and actually to be honest even before that, but certainly since the 1880s, newspapers, tabloids (In many cases the exact same tabloids that we have today; the Daily Mail being a primary example.) are writing stories about how tattooing’s a brand new thing. About how everyone’s doing it now; about how women are getting tattooed; about how it’s fashionable; And always in with that about how people are going to regret it when they’re older; how the fad’s nearly over; and how awful and barbarous it is.
So these two strands, about how it’s new and exciting and fashionable and cool, and also how it’s kind of awful and degenerate and worrying and terrifying, run in parallel for the whole period we have for professional tattooing in this country. Which makes it quick difficult to answer the question as to whether or not it is really more popular or not. Because if you believe the newspapers, it’s always been new. Which obviously doesn’t make any sense logically. I’ve taken to sending journalists who write those articles examples from a hundred years ago, some of which get quite annoyed when I do that. So what you have to try and do is work out from other sources, or read between the lines and work out how things have changed.
I think certainly the low point for British tattooing in terms of its social acceptability is the late 1950s, actually. During World War II, it’s certainly the case that tattooing was very very prevalent amongst enlisted populations primarily, but also in the general population. The Captain of the submarine fleet, a guy called George Creasy had a big tattoo on the back of his neck, which is immortalized in his sculptural bust in the National Maritime Museum.
People came back from the War, and tattooing became by the 50s very associated with a particular class of person. Lower class people. And the reason for that is because it’s sort of a visibility problem. If you’re bank manager has a tattoo on his back, on his leg, on his arm, you will never see it because when you meet him he has shirtsleeves on and a blazer. If your gardener has a tattoo on his arm, you will see it. And so primarily, I think, due to a visibility problem, the upper ranks of the British military that got tattooed a lot during World War II, their tattoos sort of fade into…not into history so much as they faded from view. But the people who were hustling on the streets after the War and forced to work in manual professions were the ones whose tattoos you saw. So a perception developed during the 50s that tattoos were for a certain kind of person.
Linked in with that was a general trend in visual culture towards modernism, towards streamlined, towards the removal of ornament. It was fashionable to— There wasn’t so much decoration, there wasn’t so much chintz, in everything from architecture to furniture. And so generally this idea of decoration fell from favor. So these two forces, plus as well the stigma of tattooing in the Holocaust—the tattooed numbers on the concentration camp victims—led to a real decline. So people who were children, my parents, who children during the 50s, have a really really stigmatized sense of what tattooing is. I think that’s largely the persistence of why we still have a sense in general that tattooing is of a particular kind, despite the fact that we’ve had the same kind of articles I’ve just been talking about, the same kind of articles that tattooing’s a brand new thing all the way through that period, even.
By the time you get to the mid 60s, late 60s, it’s starting to pick up again. There are interesting tattooists in London. But they’re having to work in a way that their pre-War counterparts weren’t. So tattooists in the 60s, they were tattooing teenagers. The Tattooing Of Minors Act came in 1969 in response to a big moral panic about kids getting tattooed. So it was very fashionable in the 60s, but it was linked with this moral panic.
But by the 70s, certainly by the late 70s in America, you have what some people have called that tattoo Renaissance. People like Ed Hardy, Zeke Owen, Leo Zulueta (not Zeke Owen, sorry, I meant Leo Zulueta), Cliff Raven. These guys were really interesting artistically, really pushing the art form.
That starts filtering through to Britain by the early 80s. Now, in the 80s there aren’t many tattoo shops in London, but those that do exist are tattooing older guys who were tattooed during the war, and young kids who were fashionable kids. Punk kids. And of course that leads to the stigma. And basically this is the rhythm. All the way through the 80s, 90s, 2000s, you get these rhythms of tattooing comes and goes, and styles come and go. When Into You opened in London in 1990 by Alex Binnie, it was in response to all that 80s tattooing. Alex had been to America, worked in San Francisco, actually for Ed Hardy, and came back to London with all this cool blackwork. Alex had been to art school, he was one of the first art school-educated tattooers in London. Although there was someone before him, a guy called Alan Oversby (Mr. Sebastian), who was an art school guy.
But by the time you get to the 90s, again there’s this fashionable move, art school kids. And it’s really hard at that point to work out exactly what’s going on. My hypothesis is, really, that there is and always has been two types of people: people who get tattooing (and I mean that on an empathetic level), and people who don’t get it. And if you understand the desire to mark your body…even if you don’t want to get a tattoo yourself, if you get why other people do that, then you get it. If you don’t get it, it can never be explained to you. And if you don’t get it, it’s always going to be weird, always going to be surprising, always going to be shocking, always going to be strange, always going to be slightly horrific because it involves blood and strangers touching you.
And that’s the story that I think is the persistent one. Some people get it, some people don’t. Journalists are always going to find it surprising. And yeah, there are moments when it comes and goes, and it booms and busts. I think basically since Into You opened in 1990, it’s been a continuous, continuous, continuous increase, and there are certainly more tattoo shops now than there have been ever in this country before. Back in the 80s, Lionel Titchener, who’s a tattooists in Oxford, estimated there were no more than thirty or forty tattooists in the whole country.
There’s a great letter with people writing in the 60s and 70s. There’s a guy who wrote to his newspapers in Nottingham and said, “I really want to get a tattoo but I can’t find a shop. Is there one?” And the newspapers says, “We can’t tell you if there is one.” Then someone writes the next week and says, “There is one but I can’t tell you where it is.” So there weren’t many tattoo shops.
Now there are loads and loads and loads. So undoubtably, even though I don’t really believe this idea that tattooing is “not just for sailor anymore,” that the demographics have changed, the numbers certainly have. More people are getting tattooed now. I don’t think the demographic split has changed at all, because I think there’s always been young and old men and women, fashionable and interested. So that’s a long answer to a short question. But I think a focus on the demographic or on the novelty is the wrong focus. I think quantity is probably interesting, and visibility.
Just to kind of wrap up this thought, visibility’s interesting because in the 19th century if you were tattooed, you didn’t show it off because you were wearing heavy clothing all the time. A woman called Edie, Marchioness of Londonderry, got tattooed in Japan in 1900. Big dragon on her legs, family crest. No one saw it because if you were a Victorian woman you didn’t show off your ankles. By the 30s came around, skirt lengths were a little bit higher and people were shocked to see the tattoos on her legs.
And there’s a similar thing now, as it’s becoming more and more acceptable over the last twenty or thirty years, clothing has become a lot more casual at work, people can roll their sleeves up at work. And tattooing’s becoming much more visible. And now also in the past ten years, maybe, there’s lots more tattoos on hands, necks, and faces. Which I don’t think are acceptable yet in a general sense. I think you’re still going to struggle to get a job in lots of professions if you’re as visibly tattooed as I am. But it certainly is the case that you see tattoos a lot more now that you didn’t before.
Title Card: Are a wider cross-section of people getting tattooed nowadays?
Lodder: Well, I think tattooing’s overwhelmingly been a young person’s game. I think that’s the reason a 100 year-old granny getting tattooed’s always been a news story. It’s not a new news story. There’s examples of that a long way back. But it’s certainly been a young person’s endeavor. But I think that’s in a way fairly obvious, isn’t it? Because when you’re in your youth you’re experimenting with your identity, and you’re experimenting with your aesthetic. Most people, the haircut they get when they’re 25 is the haircut they stick with for the rest of their lives, more or less. Certainly for men that’s the case.
So I think in general, I haven’t got any specific figures on that, but it’s probably skewed younger. But it’s not always been the case. Certainly the bigger tattoos, the kind of things that I’m really interested in, the big, what I want to call “artistic” tattoos, the very interesting backpieces and things, they’re expensive. And they always have been expensive. Again to pick an example from the 19th century, people were buying season tickets to their tattooists. They were spending tens and tens of pounds in the 1880s and 90s to get big tattoos. So that requires a certain amount of capital. So I think you’ll find the people that are very heavily tattooed are probably in their late 20s, early 30s. Most people who I know, men and women, who are very heavily tattooed who aren’t in the tattoo industry, tend to be in their 20s and 30s because that’s just when you can afford it.
Title Card: Are tattoos public or private?
Lodder: That’s a really good question. People often ask me why people get tattooed on their backs, because you can’t see it. And I’m not exactly sure what the answer to that question is, other than to say that in the same way that plenty of art collectors will buy things and lock them up in vaults…it’s certainly a step a head of that. I think most tattoos for most of tattooing history have been, let’s call them “semi-private.” I think there’s an assumption, certainly among the commenters on newspaper web sites, that people who are tattooed are exhibitionists. But that’s of course what we might call the toupée fallacy. You only think toupée’s look awful because you’re never going to spot a good toupée.
And in the same respects, the only visible tattoos you’re going to see are on people who want to show them to you. Now, my tattoos are very visible. I’m quite happy to have my sleeves rolled up. If your bank manager has a tattoo on his back, to come back to that, you’re not going to see it. But someone will; his lover might see it, or his family might see it. Or he might look at it in the mirror in the bathroom and never show anyone himself. And for most of tattooing’s history, at least what I cant to call the contemporary history, modern history, that’s how tattoos have been. You showed them off to people who you’d show your skin off to, but you weren’t showing them off to the general public. So they’re semi-private, I think, much more so than might be otherwise assumed.
Title Card: How does it feel to have succeeded in combining two of your passions—tattooing and art?
Lodder: It’s great, you know. I love tattoo. I do what I do… I’m an academic art historian, I teach about contemporary art, performance art. I teach that stuff and I’m into art because I love tattooing. And it wasn’t the fact that I got into academia and then got interested in tattoos as an academic subject. It was the completely opposite way around. I’ve loved tattoos all my life, and it was loving tattoos that sort of drove me to wonder where they came from and what they’re all about and to try and find stuff out. And the more I looked the less I found that made sense to me, which has led me onto this research career. And it’s fantastic.
I think, in a way, and rightly so, lots of tattooists and people who are into tattoos are very skeptical of academia and academics writing about what they do. Because I think most of the time it’s been quite voyeuristic and quite exploitative. And certainly I’m sure some people think even what I’m doing is unnecessary. Tattooing doesn’t need me to defend it, and I don’t want to make the case that I want to say tattooing is art that’s been ignored for so long, because that’s not the case.
What I want to do instead, I think, because coming at it from how I do, being heavily tattooed, having at least some access into the tattoo world and being able to chat to tattooists who are willing to show me things that they wouldn’t otherwise show other people, and be willing to put the work in where other academics maybe haven’t done that before… Because a lot of the this stuff that I research and write about isn’t in public collections. It’s not in archives. It’s in people’s sheds and the back rooms of their tattoo studios. And to get access to that stuff you have to have a certain…you have to have them trust you. Tattooing’s again a very kind of closed world, in lots of ways. For all it’s popularity and for all its visibility, it’s still really a kind of old-school guild in lots of ways. It’s taught by apprenticeship. It’s passed down from person to person. It still has its foot in some interesting areas of social practice.
So it’s hard for academics to get into it, so I feel really blessed, actually, that I’m able to put something back into the world that I love so much. It’s so nice when a tattooist says to me, “I really appreciate what you’re doing and thank you.” And I can show a tattooist something that I found and to have them be really thrilled about it. It’s a real privilege. And it’s really nice to know that every day, really…my job really, and what all academics do, there’s lots of stuff around it, but really what we do is read books and then tell people about them. Find stuff out and then tell people about them.
And I love being able to go and sort of say to people, “Hey, everything you thought you knew about tattooing isn’t right.” And when I do talks to places like… I mean, recently I’ve given quite a few talks to Rotary clubs, these clubs for people the same age as my parents, these people who were born just after the War and who have a particular sense of what tattooing is. And when I can say to them, “Hey, did you know Edward VII had a tattoo?” or, “Are you aware that this is how tattooing’s always been, and actually these things you think about tattooing aren’t quite right?” And it’s really nice to have people come up to me after those talks and say, “I never knew that, that’s really interesting.” They might still hate tattooing, and they certainly will never get one themselves. I’m never going to convince someone, nor do I want to, who hasn’t got a tattoo that they want one. That’s not a possible task. But to have someone say “I didn’t know that” is kind of what I do this for.
This interview was conducted by Maximillian Jacobson-Gonzalez as part of the requirements for his Master of Arts in Creative Media, at the University of Brighton, 2014, and portions were used in his documentary Tattoos: Perceptions & Perspectives.