Friday, May 9, 2008


I can't pass up the chance to talk about tattoos again! I mentioned the other day that I'm preparing a new podcast in my Art of Outrage series--one that will focus on a current exhibition called "Inner Battles of the Imaginary Male" curated by John Souza at the Andrew Shire Gallery. There will be more, certainly, about this show in a later entry, but for today I just want to report on an intriguing interview with one of the participating artists, Kip Fulbeck, whose contribution is a selection from a series of photographs published recently in book form under the title Permanence: Tattoo Portraits. The book includes photographs of both men and women with tattoos, with handwritten comments by the subject of each picture. The selection for the exhibition, of course, includes only male subjects and their comments.

The pictures are enormously powerful and revealing--portraits plus, if you will, because it's not only the photographic image of the person that speaks to us, but also the nature of their chosen body art and the comment that they choose to make, not to mention the affective quality of their handwriting. Here's Chuck Liddel, kick boxing champion:

(*images reproduced with permission from the artist)

The tattoo, by comparison with others in the series, is a very modest one, but his defiant comment is plenty powerful beside it. The artist told me, in our interview, that Liddell had been surprised by its frankness: he had never admitted to anyone before that his tattoo was a "fuck you" to the karate community.

Perhaps the most powerfully moving of these portraits is that of a New York firefighter who was reluctant to be photographed, and who agreed only on learning that Fulbeck, too, had been a brother firefighter. The artist flew to New York for the occasion, and the resulting picture (I have been unable to locate it in downloadable form) is guaranteed to grab you by the heartstrings: the subject's entire back is tattooed, on the right, with the image of the World Trade Center under attack and, on the left, by the names of his fellow firefighters who lost their lives. His handwritten comment is a terse "PAIN THERAPY", along with the number of his fire company. It took him quite a while, I understand, before he could commit to even this brief comment.

Tattooing is, as Fulbeck told me, in part about the pain. He sees it as a form of initiation and revolt, as well as an assertion of individual identity--something he should know about, having submitted to the tattooist's needle himself, with work by the Japanese master Takahiro Kitamura. Here he is, a handsome chap, as you'll agree:

You'll find out more about him here. I learned a great deal from him about tattooing in the few short minutes we spent together on the telephone. A poet, writer, performance and video artist as well as a photographer, he brings a depth of intellectual insight to the subject that gives context and breadth of meaning to the experiential. I'll be sure to let readers of The Buddha Diaries know when the podcast is posted, and I'm sure that you will enjoy the chance to hear this artist speak in his own words.


Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Currently, I know no one (unless I've missed it) over the ages of 40 who has a tattoo. I know a dozen or more under the age of 30 who have tattoos. I resume it’s a generational thing!

PeterAtLarge said...

I think it's much more of a social norm these days, Nick. It used to be more outrageous, more a gesture of revolt than it is these days. It's sad, in a way, that there are increasingly fewer ways for young people to rebel against taboos, these days when literally anything seems to go.

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Perhaps tattoos and body piercing are the only way they can show their individuality while wearing the same designer clothes as their peers?

PeterAtLarge said...

That might make sense, yes! Too bad that it does!

They call him James Ure said...

Tattoos are also visual protrayals of a persons life. I can tell you what I was going through in my personal life with each tattoo of mine.

Too there is a "Brotherhood/sisterhood" amongst those with tattoos. It's like an instant understanding and friendship when you meet someone with tattoos like yourself.

I too agree with the pain. It's partly about transcendence. Transcending the pain of samsara.

Then there is the pure art behind them. I am honored to have permanent art etched upon my body.

It's a real compliment to a tattoo artist that you are willing and happy to wear their work on your body for life.