Work by Matt Zubas
Just shy of a century ago, the Austrian architect Adolf Loos wrote, “Tattooed men who are not behind bars are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If someone who is tattooed dies in freedom, then he does so a few years before he would have committed murder.”
Time has obviously faded the contempt and anxiety that prompted such a statement. Tattoo shops have sprung up in broad bourgeois daylight between architectural firms and gyms. Nice mommies bare their inky butterflies without embarrassment, and, most recently, Loos' latent criminals have been formally invited into the bastion of high culture. This Saturday evening, May 15, the Oceanside Museum of Art will host the second annual Masterworks of Body Art exhibition (see www.oma-online.org), where models will display the work of a dozen or so gifted tattoo artists from around Southern California. It's a declarative statement that tattoos, once the supposed mark of the devil, are now art.
Not that anyone should be particularly surprised. These days, many of the sharp and angry accessories of yesterday's subcultures have been welcomed into the mainstream. But by the same token, the tattoo is a vehicle for many talented artists. They seem to speak a language larger and more complex than the tattooed might realize themselves.
“My dad worked as a millwright, and he was around a bunch of greasy construction workers that rode Harleys,” says John Vogh, one of the Masterworks models, who moved to San Diego from Vancouver for a high-tech helicopter-mechanic job. “I had an itch and fascination towards tattoos. I saw these guys and thought, ‘That looks pretty damn cool.'”
Vogh took part in last year's inaugural exhibition and had nothing but favorable things to say about an event that was filled with discussion between two seemingly incongruent sections of society. It must have been quite a sight to see what he calls “proper ladies” flock around his bare chest and admire the results of a longing he's had since he was 12 years old.
“They thought it was very nice art,” says Vogh, who aside from the blazing illustrations wrapping around his arms, is clean-cut and well-mannered enough for any girl next door to stick a bow on and bring home to mom. You'd have to have both hands over your eyes to not recognize this sort of tattoo work as fascinating, the product of highly skilled artists.
Yet the fact that it's on the skin opens up a bevy of questions, all quite revealing of our mixed feelings on what a body is, anyway. Sociological and medical literature of the past century is littered with comments linking tattoos with psychiatric, behavioral and criminal disorders. Even those embedded in tattoo culture seem to take a certain pride in its subversive characterization. Danny Sugarman, the late manager of The Doors and Iggy Pop, wrote, “In addition to being a form of self-destruction, the tattoo seals the wearer off from the rest of normal society forever.”
“Forever” was probably a bit of an overstatement. Last February, Ozzy Osbourne told Time magazine, “If you want to be somebody special now, don't have a tattoo, because everyone's getting them, you know.” The rebel-turned-TV-star might be known for incoherence, but this time he's backed up by the research brigade. In 2008, the Harris Interactive Poll found that one in five people on the West Coast has a tattoo.
“There are doctors with sleeves and lawyers with full body suits,” says Chris Winn, curator of this and last year's Masterworks exhibition. “They just don't show them when they walk into court. I've tattooed many professional people.”
Winn, a self-described family man with a reputation as an excellent tattoo artist in the local scene, hopes the event will help tattoos gain recognition as a fine art. It will be a night as gawk-worthy as educational. Master of ceremonies Jade Winn will lead the audience through the runway show with a discussion of the cultural and symbolic meanings of the imagery. Afterward, the audience will be encouraged to mingle with the models while refreshments are served and Evan Robinson of local rock act War Stories entertains. And, for those who aren't squeamish, tatau, a traditional form of hand tattooing, will be demonstrated by Su'a Sulu'ape FreeWind of Black Wave Tattoo in Los Angeles. FreeWind, who studied with one of the first families in Samao to practice tatau, is well versed in the culture, spiritualism, tool-making and ceremony that surround the practice. In other words, there will be plenty to talk about over the complimentary wine.
“This is a huge step for tattoo culture,” Winn says. “It's really nice for people that might not ever walk into a tattoo parlor to meet us and understand where we come from. We put our pants on just like the next guy.”