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Sleeve by Yes2 (photograph by Angela Boatwright, all images courtesy Prestel Publishing)

Graffiti and tattoos seem like total opposities. One is ephemeral, lasting only until it’s painted over by the city or other writers, the other is forever, or at least unless you decide to rip the ink back out of your skin. Yet there’s been abundant crossover in the aesthetic style, but what’s more interesting is graffiti writers who have moved to tattooing as their main focus.

In Skin Graf: Masters of Graffiti Tattoo, being published by Prestel on April 25, one of these graffiti writers, Michael “Kaves” McLeer, and producer/director Billy Burke compiled the work and stories of some of these graffiti-to-tattoo artists. This Wednesday, Kaves is giving a talk at the New York Public Library with Burke on this crossover culture.

2 Train tattoo by Ces (courtesy of Ces)

Skin Graf is dense with photographs of their work on exposed skin, but the highlights are the personal narratives from “masters” like Seen, Med, Yes2, Coast, Mister Cartoon, Giant, Ces, and Kaves himself. They’re surprisingly upfront about what got them into graffiti and then tattooing (mostly money, as you can’t sell an illegal tag like one written on flesh, or prison), and openly conversational. There’s also that brazenness that got them into tagging in the first place.

“It was a natural transition for me to go from graffiti into tattooing: two lowbrow, underground styles of art,” explains Los Angeles-based Mister Cartoon in the book.

While some of the photographs of tattoos can get repetitive, in the same way a repeated graffiti tag all over the city can, the vintage shots embedded in the narratives are great. One shows Mister Cartoon wearing a polo shirt, white shorts, and knee high socks in front of a tagged wall in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, and in another Bronx-based Seen, one of the first to move from graffiti to tattoos, stands triumphant on the Hollywood sign in the Los Angeles hills he’s just tagged over with his name. These personal styles later flourished through the skin of tattoo clients into permanent art that was personal for a whole other audience.

“I stuck with what I knew,” states Pyro, based in Los Angeles, of his beginnings with tattoos. “I didn’t do a Japanese dragon, I did a graffiti piece. It reminded me a lot of the trains: they were moving, and the materials were crude, and you had to take those elements and turn them into something beautiful.”

Back piece by Mister Cartoon (photograph by Estevan Oriol)

However, a lot of the art isn’t what you’d usually call beautiful. Neck tattoos abound, and one tattoo by Mister Cartoon shows two naked ladies reclining with a potbellied humanoid dog, while another by Yes2 depicts the Pillsbury Doughboy just after a heist, smoking semi-automatic and bag of cash in hand. Yet traditional standards of beauty aside, it is interesting how the style of graffiti writing has so totally embedded itself in the street culture of tattoo style. Yes2 in the Bronx reminisces about what was popular when he was younger: “I remember a lot of people were getting killer clowns tattooed on them, clowns with fuckin’ knives, or the swirl in the eye, like that crazy hypnotized look … At the time, I thought that I would never get a tattoo, I was like ‘Fuck that, I don’t want one of these clowns.’” Of course, being that he’s in this book, he did end up getting way into tattoos, although he explains its challenges in comparison to his first art:

With graffiti, you have total freedom to do whatever the fuck you want, and you’re normally doing it where you are not supposed to be doing it. And don’t forget, you’ve got to get it done fast. With tattoos, you have to give the person what they want and take a bit more of your time to get it right, and you can’t fuck up. With spray paint and graffiti you can paint over a mistake, but you can’t do that with tattoos.

Mike Giant (photograph by Estevan Oriol)

Most of the artists continued to do graffiti alongside their tattoo work, but while most of the tags that appear in the book are probably long gone, those drawings in skin are still out there somewhere carrying on their vivid art, whether it’s Giant’s lettering that seems almost severed out of the skin or Ces’s black and white tattoo of the 2 train rumbling on someone’s shoulder to the Bronx. “Graffiti art will spawn the next wave of tattoo artists,” asserts Mister Cartoon. “The next wave of designers for movies or the next wave of fashion designers is going to come from graffiti art, from that form where you can get arrested, where people are telling you that you’re doing something you’re not supposed to do.”

Kaves sketching a tattoo (photograph by Angela Boatwright)

Skin Graf: Masters of Graffiti Tattoo by Michael “Kaves” McLeer and Billy Burke  is out April 25 with Prestel USA. Michael “Kaves” McLeer, with Billy Burke and Sacha Jenkins, discusses Skin Graf at the New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on April 24 at 6 pm.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...