The Official Blog for Tattoo Artist Magazine

Dawn Cooke: Symbolism

Everything we see has a significant meaning and stands as a symbol when used in any context regarding sculpture, image and even written language. If objects are used in any art context they become symbols just the same as images used in an illustration. This is the reason I believe we are seeing so much usage of symbols with object imagery in tattooing…

I had been thinking about symbolism in imagery and objects for a long time and the more I look at tattoos that people are doing the more I see the repetition of certain imagery. I don’t know how conscious this is in the tattoo world. I think some people just say, “Hey, that is cool” so they repeat it, monkey-see-monkey-do-style.

But maybe there are some out there who are aware of some desire to communicate through these images. I am not really sure about that. But I think about it when I see things.

Take the swastika for example. That is a very well known symbol. However, the history of the symbol is not so well known. Most of Western culture has no clue about the origins of the symbol and are quick to relate it to hate. So far, in the Western world, tattoo artists have been the only groups of artists willing to tackle such imagery. I wondered if maybe it was an attempt to reclaim the symbol from the Nazi party?

Most tattoo artists are uniquely exposed to symbolism from different cultures around the world. Which gives us, as tattoo artists, an isolated perspective. In my own studies I discovered that the rest of the Western art community doesn’t respond the same way we do within our own subculture. And you can never deny or erase any part of the symbols history no matter how hard you try.

I once made a symbol of a Hindu swastika on the grounds of a Western college and I discovered that it made people uncomfortable and even un-happy. The response was to dump water on it in an attempt to erase the symbol. I drew it on the pavement with dry plaster dust. When said individual dumped water on the symbol they solidified it. It was an interesting experiment.

As a testament to the power of the visual image this taught me not to take lightly the things I am responsible for putting out into the world. I think sometimes our bravery to test the boundaries as tattoo artists also sometimes works against us in that we aren’t conscious of exactly what we are doing.

Sometimes maybe we just want to be noticed. In my case, I wanted to see what the power of a symbol could do. Subtlety is a wise and delicate craft in and of itself. This is the truth about what I learned. Artists are very powerful people and sometimes we don’t even know what we do and how we really affect others.

We have an interesting ability to tap into a universal language; maybe we shouldn’t be so haphazard about it. At the same time, some of what we do is experimental in nature and has no message behind it. After time some things we do end up adopting some meaning all on their own. The meaning may never have been intentional, but the it images speak some meaning to the viewer that allows them to respond to them in someway, so they must mean something to someone, or they never could exist.

Knowing this I find it really interesting to think about what can be done through the use of object, image and the written word. What are we really saying and does it even matter? Whether it matters to the maker he/she sends a message of some kind regardless.

A tattoo doesn’t have to mean a damn thing, that’s not what I’m saying! God knows we have had enough of that crap to last a lifetime. You get the “picture” because you like it. But even in spite of you it means something every time human eyes gaze upon it. That is the most interesting thing about the whole business.

The tattoo itself is a symbol independent of the imagery. I think it stands for control in an environment of chaos. That’s enough right? Does it really need to stand for a dead loved one? Does it have to be so literal? What about metaphor?

(Dawn Cooke is a contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine can be found at Depot Town Tattoo, 33 East Cross St. Ypsilanti, MI 48197 www.dawncooke.net and www.dawncookeart.com)


2 responses

  1. kellie fredericks

    Dawn,
    I would like to ask you to answer your reply from a 17 year old who wants to be a tattoo artist. I am her Grammy and have sent her to your blogs for advice. Thanx so much! Mamaw

    July 6, 2011 at 11:28 PM

  2. kellie fredericks

    Sorry, added to above, your blog on art school. Thanx again. Mamaw

    July 6, 2011 at 11:31 PM

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