By Jason Lambert
If you hang around a tattoo shop long enough the chances are that you will hear a tattooer complain that tattooing is no longer as good as it was “in the old days.” One of the most common gripes along these lines is that people “these days” don’t just go into a shop and pick a design off the wall anymore, that tattooing is now about coddling customers wacky notions or interpreting their uncool dreams.
Many (if not most) of these folks were not actually tattooing when flash truly was king, yet they still long for the time when a tattooer didn’t have to think (or draw) and instead could pretend to be some blue-collar Joe-Sixpack and just tattoo like it was a “job.” Along with this attitude comes the notion that tattooers shouldn’t be called “artists” or that by doing tattoos based on the clients vision and bringing an artistic mind to the tattoo one is in violation of how tattooing was done “traditionally.”
I suppose this might be true from a certain viewpoint. If one’s entire view of the world of tattooing is based only on a Western one from the year 1930 ’til about 1985, then I guess you could argue that tattooing really is no longer like it was “in the old days.”
The problem with this view is that the world of tattooing is much, MUCH older than that. As humans we tend to measure everything with the yardstick of a human lifetime, but take a look at the figure below. (Click on timeline to enlarge image.)
While we humans have almost certainly been tattooing for nearly our entire existence (200,000-plus years) we only have direct evidence in the form of preserved skin going back to about 5,300 B.C. So even if we use this much abbreviated starting point for tattooing, it should be pretty obvious that the amount of time that tattooers worked primarily with flash is about 50 or 60 years. And 60 years is frankly, barely a blip on the timeline of tattooing’s history.
Before the modern era, the act of tattooing fulfilled a religious, unifying tribal identity, magical/medicinal, and initiation role for us human folk. For the vast history of tattooing it was used to do what modern-day tattooers bitch and moan about!
Tattooing’s purpose was to interpret dreams, to act as talisman, to fulfill whatever that unconscious desire is that has made us humans tattoo ourselves since before we built a single city. When one thinks about this enormous span of time (and the fact that tattooing was used for these specific purposes) it begins to feel like our little bit of “tradition” of walking into a stranger’s shop, picking some other person’s imagery off the wall, and getting it applied by someone who neither knows or cares about you is the thing “ruining” tradition, the real tradition. (The 5,000-year-old one!)
So maybe instead of modern custom tattooing being “too nice” or “not old-school,” maybe the reality is that tattooing is slowly bringing its self back into line with a millennia of deeper tradition. Maybe the real aberration is the time period when we tried to take the hippie/shaman aspect out of tattooing, and it is now correcting itself?
Think of it this way; the real period of the American “Old West” with cowboys and indians, cattle drives, sheriffs and shoot-outs lasted only from 1880 ’til about 1905, (roughly 25 years) and yet it has taken on a terribly outsized importance to our self-image as “Americans.” In the same way, the relatively brief period of “traditional” American tattooing has caused more than a few tattooers to despise anything at variance with their golden-era myth of tattooing’s supposed magic/scary days.
Of course, I am not trying to say that the 20th century of Western tattooing was not an amazing and vibrant time in tattooing’s history, it absolutely was! But like anything, when we idolize that idealization it comes at the expense of seeing the bigger picture and appreciating our real place in it. When we ignore the role of tattoos in the other 4,900 years of its recorded existence, then we also ignore the true power and nobility of our art-form. It’s like being so in love with a pretty shell on the beach that we miss the whole rest of the ocean that created it.
(Jason Lambert is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. Jason can be found at Black Cat Tattoos in Pittsburgh, PA.)