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Skin Deep: the Art of Tattoos

In this article, Ella Crowsley examines this incredibly personal form of expression



Tattoos have always fascinated me, not only as a technical medium but as a form of art. The skill that lies behind the placement of ink on the skin can create the most incredible images, personal to each individual who wears it. The practice can be dated back to Neolithic times, evidenced by mummified preserved skins. The emergence of tattoos as a part of pop culture has undeniably brought the practice into more light. But why is it that tattooing often isn’t classified as art in the same way as comparable genres like painting or photography? This question has led me to consider how we define art, and where tattooing may fit into this.

One of the main reasons for considering tattooing as a form of art is intention. Modern artists and even museum curators appear to cohesively agree that if someone intends for their tattoo to be art, then this is the label that best fits the piece. Both tattoo artists and those who wear the pieces are able to make statements, both implied and explicit, through the expression of ink. To me, the pieces don’t have to mean or represent anything, though this can certainly create deeper meaning for some, but instead, the ink is carried by the person as a reminder of the intention of art that makes its mark forever.

Perhaps one of the contrasting arguments lies in the consideration of value. Unlike many other artistic genres, tattoos are unable to be sold, once the piece is created, and cannot be passed between people. I would counter this by stating that tattoos can hold value in a multitude of ways, just as paintings may. Firstly, the quality of the tattoo is determined by the artist, and this also literally determines the monetary value of the piece. Many people will traverse the country to have a specific artist or specialist create work for their skin. Secondly, no matter how cliched this may sound, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Tattoos represent one of the most personal art forms, allowing those who have them to create their own ideas and build a piece with value to them, for whatever reason they choose. It seems difficult to argue that a work designed personally for you cannot hold value.

In fact, the comparison of techniques seen in traditional art forms further aid the assertion that tattoos must be seen as a form of art. Take sculpture, for example, the manipulation of shape surrounding the body can hugely affect how a piece of art is perceived. Human form sculptors may focus on the shape of the body, it’s curves and the effect of the three-dimensional lines caused by different positions that it may lie in. Similarly, the placement of tattoos can hugely impact the art, using flowing lines to work with the body and its form. This image pictured below for example, perfectly follows the line off of the shoulder, curving carefully beneath the collarbone, emphasising the delicate artwork.


Similarly, tattoo often mirrors techniques found in traditional art forms. Knowledge of colour theory, line work, design and perspective all go into crafting the perfect tattoo. Even more precise comparisons can be made, for example, the painting technique of pointillism is exceptionally alike to dot work in tattoos. Both place single dots of pigment to build up an overall image. The skill needed, using perspective and ingenuity, undeniably makes this a work of art.

Perhaps it’s the unknown and relatively new form that makes tattooing a taboo topic. However, with surveys claiming that nearly a fifth of people in the UK sporting tattoos, perhaps the medium will become more widely accepted. It’s clear that the practice requires immense skill, and to me certainly qualifies tattoos as artwork.


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