A Photographer Looks at London’s Tattoos

All images from "London Tattoos" taken by the author for Hyperallergic.

Photographer and photojournalist Alex MacNaughton’s latest book titled London Tattoos (Prestel 2011), is a lighthearted book of portraits featuring Londoners and their tattoos. Shooting his portraits in the studio against a neutral white background, reminiscent of white gallery walls, MacNaughton treats tattoos, and the bodies they are etched upon, like works of art. Showing only one image of each person fully covered in street clothes, MacNaughton crops and edits his photographs to show different parts and pieces of the body.

In London Tattoos, MacNaughton’s photographs draw our attention away the tattoo owners, and forces us to look instead at the color, shape and design of each individual tattoo. The photographs feel like intimate portraits, yet they function conceptually more like documentations, with skin as an ever-present stand-in for a traditional canvas. As it states in the forward of London Tattoos, “all are united by the decision they have taken to donate their own skin to an artist for the creation of an image.”

In its brief introduction, London Tattoos reminds us that the history of tattooing is a long and complicated one, and how tattoos have been culturally digested differs greatly from place to place. Though here in the states they are still tied to a certain counter-culture aesthetic, in London, thanks to the popularization of tattooing by the aristocracy, they were considered from the beginning to be exotic and desirable — the boredom of the rich might have, in this particular case, mitigated the low class associations many people still have with the practice. The first tattoo parlor opened in London in 1870, and by the 1880s it was “all the rage amongst the most fashionable of London’s high society.” It’s important to remember, London Tattoos suggests, that the manner in which tattoos were brought to a particular place greatly affected how that society viewed them afterwards. Similar to how attitudes toward street art and graffiti differ in other parts of the world, where neither is considered vandalism, it’s refreshing to realize that other societies also find tattoos less controversial, distasteful and emblematic than our own.

In London Times, MacNaughton’s Londoners have a spread to themselves, all of which begin with a clothed portrait, and across from it that person’s name, age and an explanation for his or her tattoos: what they mean, if anything, where they got them, if they remember, and what they hope to get next. Each person seems to have been asked a similar series of questions, as their answers read almost like a survey. The text is highly personal, like an oddly specific bio, covering how Londoners feel about body art, modification, and embellishment, and it’s also very individual — no one else knows, or could explain, just why you picked that particular thorny rose, the serpentine snake coiled around your belly button or a busty pin-up girl sitting in a champagne glass. It’s surprising, however, how similar the sentiments and stories are behind so many different people and tattoos. MacNaughton’s book includes different age groups, genders, races and professions, as well as impromptu, detailed, small and large tattoos — the overlap between Londoners is great despite these differences. Similar to other fashions, we also learn that the whys behind tattoos can be deeply personal or purely aesthetic.

If you read London Tattoos like it’s a case study of how people with tattoos see their tattoos, you get a more nuanced look into generic terms like “meaningful” and “personal.” Many Londoners see their tattoos as mementos, talismans, memories or dedications. Ness, a 35-year-old woman sleeved in colorful and playful floral tattoos, says, “my tattoos are a snapshot in time as well as a loose representation of the people I love.” Ashley Jagdeo, an ethnic looking young man with black & white tattoos scattered over his entire body, many of them stylized female faces, says of his tattoos, “they are indelible marks that represent times in my life that will be with me forever.” 22-year-old Coral Davies gains self-confidence from her tattoos, “they make me feel more comfortable in my own skin,” although the large cover-up on her body might cause us to wonder if they are actually succeeding.

Many of the people in London Tattoos go beyond this type of meaning and see their tattoos as powerful, almost superstitious, images. For them, wearing a tattoo is like wearing a locket or wedding ring, type of jewelry we put on in order to remember, protect and cherish others.

Other Londoners interviewed in London Tattoos see their tattoos as aesthetic, a statement of difference, or a way to separate themselves from others. Their tattoos are about the consequences of getting and wearing a tattoo — they are tattoos for tattoos sake — and how society responds to them is often more meaningful or telling than the tattoos themselves. Piece together their individual sentiments to form a collective opinion, this group of Londoners sees tattoos more as pieces of art than a chosen image of self-expression. Pinnetto, a 34-year-old male artist says, “tattoos are to me a pure form of decoration and artistic expression.” Andrew Shirley, a young man with a bear-like frame states that, “people get too hung up on tattoos needing meaning.” Heavily tattooed from head to toe, his tattoos are a colorful mash up of things he likes or has liked. Lucrezia Testa Iannilli, an elegant dancer in her thirties also sees her tattoos as “purely aesthetic.” A few people even express a feeling of otherness that their tattoos give them, and the pride they feel in not looking like anyone else.

Paging through London Tattoo’s I was forced myself to ask some hard questions about tattoos. Is tattooing an art form? Are tattoos art? Tattoos have long been integrated into the art world, both as body art worn by artists, and as independent artworks based upon the technique. Just a few weeks ago I attended an opening at 7Eleven gallery, where the artist Nick Doyle was giving patrons free tattoos with his personally crafted gun, for the opening reception of a new show. Artists like the Belgian sculptor and installation artist Wim Delvoye, have found new ways to turn tattoos and skin into something truly amazing. Delvoye runs an “Art Farm” in China, where he humanely raises, tattoos, skins and stuffs pigs.

While searching for answers to the questions raised about art and tattoos in London Tattoos, I was reminded of the art critic Peter Schjeldahl who suggested in a lecture at SVA last fall, “when in doubt, make distinctions.” In that vein some tattoo artists are artists, and some tattoos are art. Not all tattoos, however, need to be or even try to be art, and it’s important to distinguish between the two: most things are not art by default, and almost anything can become art through intention. The majority of Londoners in MacNaughton’s photographs don’t consider their tattoos works of art, and they don’t value them any less because of it. As one Londoner states, “let’s face it, art’s a personal thing at the end of the day.”

Alex MacNaughton’s London Tattoos is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

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