Montreal Ink

What happens to artistic freedom when your art is on someone’s skin?

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W hether you have one yourself, or you know somebody who does, tattoos are becoming more and more popular. Although no statistics exist for Canadians, 36 per cent of Americans from 18 – 25 already have at least one. Getting permanently inked is becoming more commercialized, as tattoos become increasingly visible among celebrities and professional athletes. So, how do tattoo artists maintain their artistic freedom, when magazines like Teen Vogue are publishing articles targeted at teenagers about what they should know before getting inked?
Emilie Roby, a Montreal tattoo artist, tries to retain her artistic freedom despite the recent popularity of tattoos by being “active in other art forms as it influences and nourishes my tattoo aesthetic. I believe that it is the secret of my singularity.” Roby experiments with other tools, like a scalpel, rather than sticking to the typical needles used to inject ink into the skin. On her web site, she writes, “the plastic qualities of my work in corporal modification have been enriched with the integration of scarification techniques, using cutting, ink rubbing, by themselves or combined with tattooing.”

Roby’s methods of maintaining her artistic freedom are unique. Not all tattoo artists engage in such extreme measures. Dwayne “Darkness” Hanley, a tattoo artist at Adrenaline on the corner of Guy and Sherbrooke Ouest, also feels his artistic freedom can be limited in a medium where the canvas is somebody else’s skin. When a client doesn’t want Hanley’s artistic input, the inking becomes more of a business transaction than an expression of his own artistic autonomy. However, Hanley often creates designs for clients who have an image in their head, but cannot seem to replicate it on paper. This provides him with the opportunity to use his artistic flare, while still trying to figure out what exactly a client wants inked.

Tattoo clients are also aware of the artistic limitations, whether it is space or freedom, which tattoo artists face with every new inking they must perform. Taylar Reid, a U2 Arts student, believes that it \depends on what the client is getting done. “If it’s something plain and simple, like my Banksy stencil, then there isn’t much room for artistic expression. But if it is a bigger piece that the artist can have more freedom with, then I think they can take their expression a long way.” When Roby consults with her clients, she takes note of people’s preferences and ideas, but the final result is her own vision, which is why she believes they enlist her to tattoo them: “More and more people don’t feel the necessity of being involved in the process; I guess it’s a matter of growing artistic trust.”

Tattoo artists face obvious limitations with the amount of creativity they can bring to a client’s design, but what happens when they are given the chance to freely design a tattoo? When does the artist’s ownership of the work end and the tattooée’s begin? Hanley had mixed feelings about this, and thought that as soon as the needle transfers the image to the skin, the client’s ownership starts. He also said, “I know it’s on them for life, and no matter where they go and they’re showing it to people and they’re asking who did it, and I did it, then I never really release the ownership. But it’s their image, it was their idea, I did it for them, it belongs to them. I just happened to be the one who did it.” Roby also commented on her difficulties distancing herself from her works of art when she first started tattooing: “For a few years it was difficult to disengage, but I got used to it. Just knowing that they exist is now fully satisfying to me. And it helps to have a good camera.”

Artistic expression may be restricted in such a thoroughly commercial medium, but the popularity has encouraged Montreal tattoo artists to band together and create a community where they can showcase and comment on each other’s work. The seventh annual Montreal Art Tattoo Show, which took place at the beginning of September, brought tattoo artists from around the world to participate in the Montreal scene. Artists and the general public were able to view portfolios, consult with tattoo artists, and, of course, get inked. Roby has attended the convention for several years, saying, “I always look forward to participating in that event, where I can meet tattoo collectors and tattoo artists from here and from abroad.” However, Hanley disagrees that a unified tattoo artist community exists, because Montreal is so competitive, “It becomes more of our shop versus your shop, as opposed to a ‘Hey, you tattoo? I tattoo, let’s see your work, let’s see my work. Oh, you’re good. Oh, you’re not bad.’”

The demand for tattoos has increased significantly, especially among younger individuals – perhaps due to the influence of celebrities like Rihanna, who displayed a tiny gun inking on her rib cage after her public breakup with Chris Brown earlier in the year. But does this newfound popularity make tattoos any more socially acceptable? A U2 Management student, who got tattooed last December, seems to think so: “Older generations still hold some sort of stereotype for people with tattoos, but I definitely think that tattoos will be more and more accepted – even in the professional field – among future generations.” Reid has also seen many young professionals with visible tattoos, like her veterinarian and dentist. Hanley agreed, but believes that there is still a long way before tattoos become socially acceptable. “[Tattooing] is going to be more businesspeople, more customer service, more customer friendly. And caring people taking care of their tattoos. I think eventually it will [become more socially acceptable], like once you get rid of the negativity when it comes to tattoos, like people worrying about Hepatitis and diseases.”

Although the surge of people getting inked has only seemed to further commercialize tattoos as an art form, the confinement of artistic freedom seems to be only a slight concern for the tattoo artists I talked to. As Henley says, “It’s the only job where if you get bored, it’s because you’ve done everything. And that’s insane, because you shouldn’t get bored. Because there’s different types of skin, different types of tattoos…. It’s always challenging.” Like any other artistic medium, the artists learn to adapt to the ongoing changes, even if the change is due to an increase in the popularity of getting inked. But like Roby said about which pieces she feels are works of art, and which are simply the fruits of labour: “It doesn’t make any difference in the end. I’m the only one who knows.”