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Dawn Cooke: Why a Tattoo Is Not a Painting, and a Painting Is Not a Tattoo

Dawn Cooke: Why a Tattoo Is Not a Painting, and a Painting Is Not a Tattoo

By Dawn Cooke
This is actually a simple concept really, it’s because they are completely different mediums, if you even consider tattooing an artistic medium. The same way a sculpture isn’t a painting, a drawing isn’t a sculpture, needlepoint isn’t furniture making, a tattoo is not a painting and a painting is not a tattoo.

Many tattoo artists have attempted to combine or blur the lines between the two forms of expression. While these attempts are very impressive to people who know little or care nothing about the tradition and history of tattooing, they can sometimes go against the spirit of the trade or craft of tattooing…

I’ll clarify that I am not trying to minimize the work or style of tattoo artists who do attempt to mimic the affects of paintings in their tattoos. And I’m not really talking about quality portrait tattoos either. Actually I have a great appreciation for most styles where it shows that the tattoo artists take the utmost care for their craft. I understand that artists are always “pushing the boundaries”. However, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should.

Personally, I regard the history and tradition of tattooing above my own artistic ego. I am not trying to reinvent the wheel with my own tattoo work. If I can apply a piece for a client that will stand the test of time then that is my primary goal.

Tattooing is not a medium for me to express myself through. I use my skills and design sensibility to provide the experience and application of a tattoo to the best of my ability. Which is a constant evolution and striving for improvement. However I do choose to explore other artistic mediums for the specific purpose of personal artistic expression. I really think it is important to appreciate a medium for it’s particular qualities.

Paint for example is beautiful just as a material. Oil paint, specifically, is an amazing medium also rich in history but it has such a lush texture, so buttery and seductive. With different mediums the affects that are possible are endless. You can paint on many kinds of surfaces. Tattooing is more about the process and the collaborative interaction. The process is completely different. It is not a thing of material substance. A person that wears it is the thing of material substance. A tattoo involves the puncturing of the skin of a live being, its always skin. There are not many services in public that quite compare.

As artists in general I think we are required to understand the tradition and history of the mediums we choose to use as our language. It gives our work more power and importance. Understanding our language is essential in allowing us to be better speakers.

“There is no known culture in which people do not paint pierce tattoo re-shape or simple adorn their bodies.” Enid Schildkrout, Anthropologist.

Related TAM Blog Post:

(Dawn Cooke is a contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine can be found at Depot Town Tattoo, 33 East Cross St. Ypsilanti, MI 48197 and
Dawn Cooke is featured in Tattoo Artist Magazine #21:


  1. The blurring of the lines between painting and tattooing is an interesting topic, and one that I don’t think I have a definitive view on. Firstly, my attitude to tattooing is that if the tattooist is technically good, the lines are smooth and the ink is well placed, and there is demand for their work, then why on earth would anyone care what other people put on other people’s bodies, and who puts it on them? One of the most liberating aspects of tattooing is the ability to take control of your body regardless of what anyone else thinks. Yet even within tattooing there is a prescriptive notion of what the right and wrong things are to do to your own body.

    “Many tattoo artists have attempted to combine or blur the lines between the two forms of expression. While these attempts are very impressive to people who know little or care nothing about the tradition and history of tattooing, they can sometimes go against the spirit of the trade or craft of tattooing…”

    Actually, there are many of us who know a great deal about the tradition(s) and history of tattooing, and are impressed by all well executed tattoos. Most importantly, we understand that contemporary ‘traditional’ tattooing has progressed from old, traditional techniques of tattooing. Furthermore, those old traditional techniques were always developing and changing. Many of those well-known, seminal tattooists would be astonished that what is considered ‘traditional’ or ‘neo-traditional’ now is somehow in keeping with their approach. Tattooing is not trapped in amber, or objective. It changes, progresses, and people always object to that. They always have.

    What exaclty is the “spirit of the trade or craft of tattooing”? It’s not an objective idea – tattooing is made up of many millions of individuals who all have a say in what tattooing is. No one of them is right. I don’t believe there is a ‘spirit’ to tattooing. It is subjective. You have your view of what tattooing is or should be, but that is very different from the notion of the ‘spirit’ of tattooing. How do these tattooists “go against” this spirit? Who is the arbiter of what tattooing is and who says what it should be, and how can someone go against that?

    “However, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should.”

    Or, another way of thinking about this might be “just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.” Why does this moral stance regarding non-traditional tattooing exist in a trade that is constantly faced with judgement, ridicule, and bigotry? For me the only bad tattooing is that which is done unhygenically, or technically bad, or when other tattooists work is ripped off. Beyond that, if the work is skilled, amd someone wants it done, who on earth is it hurting, and why do tattooists get so threatened by the presence of this type of tattoo?

  2. Shawna,
    The spirit of tattooing in my eyes is determined by all those who came before us and the work that stands the test of time. That’s the point if you’re asking me. But people are entitled to think anything they want. Or get what ever kind of tattoos that they want. I am just trying to share my experience. I have seen some aged tattoos and I have noticed that there is a way of applying them that allows them to have better longevity.

    • This entry feels a shaky roller coaster in the dark. It’s as if it really avoids confronting the real point of its title. This article mentions that “some things just should not be done.” This is what really needs clarification. You say you are speaking of the way they are ‘applied’, yet the article contains no mention of common technical shortcomings of typical artists- this article is all about as you say, ‘our language’. In other words… Style.

      I’m not gonna even start about “the spirit”. That sounds like artistic tunnel vision to me. Taking inspiration from only a small group of similar people is a good way to become a very bland artist. Tattooing and art has been around for at least 50,000 years longer than what we know about ‘traditional tattooing’ from the past few centuries.

      I think just about any artist that lays eyes on this article is at least decent enough to know the basics: Black holds. Bold global impact. Tight fit. Are you sure this article is about application? Because beyond these rules, if you have application down… the possibilities are infinite. If you don’t mind me playing the same trick card, I think that is true ‘spirit’ of art itself.

      • To add, I think it is our responsibility as artists to push the boundaries of what can be done. An oil painter doesn’t revolt against the chemical layering that must be in order that his painting doesn’t fall apart once finished. Our basics are the same, just more often more difficult and elusive to some. There are many we haven’t discovered. We are at the VERY beginning of modern tattooing, and now is not the time to be saying that some things just can’t be done. It could rather, have just been done better.

  3. All of the Art that is seen as the origins of tattooing imagery was just translated from pre-existing folk art and simplified/plaigirised from Victorian era illustrations and paintings. So in this way it has always been sourced from other mediums and not exclusively had a beginning of its own.
    However, I have most definitely come (full circle, like many others) to appreciate the unique aspects of the visual language of tattooing, such as the stripped down graphical symbolism, which in my opinion, we owe to the originators of the craft as they were not, on the whole, artisically trained or schooled, therefore the art they applied to shape the imagery was bold, to the point, simplified, even niave. By no means do I intend to promote or evoke anything negatory by this. I actually appreciate this type of Art or way or seeing above all else as feel it communicates to us on the deepest of levels. Perhaps it is the purity and richness of these perpetual symbols of animal, man, flora, pattern.
    After all, we saw before we spoke, it is in my mind much more communicative than words will ever be able to describe. Yes this has been much repeated by I still feel it is overlooked. We should contemplate the language of colour and pattern in order to better understand just why these timeless images are so poignant. Let’s certainly not duplicate and replicate these images pointlessly but refine and sharpen them. Let’s find the source, man.
    Just a few thoughts whilst restraining the more philosophical side of this topic. An important point made on your article, which deserves our attention. Thanks, Michael.

    • As I failed to mention (sorry), my point was specifically aimed toward imagery generated around the time of the invention of the electric tattooing machine. What many consider as modern tattooing. Not back and beyond this, into the true origins, across the world, that would be far too broad (not to mention presumptuous) for me to discuss here.
      Perhaps tattooing reached its optimum language from this point and it cant be significantly or meaningfully improved upon, just another thought. All I see past the basis for tattooing is increasingly ‘clever’ and novel ways of applying surreal subject matter to the formula of traditional tattooing. Great, if that is what you value, its all subjective after all. I’ve gone past the point of attaching meaning to each of mine, sometimes I am fulfilled with just receiving the individual beauty and unique aesthetic of early 20th century designs. I am also starting to alter my opinion regarding the pursuit of unobtainable perfection, ie with the cleanest of lines. This has become less important than the overall “look” of the tattoo. Obvious it must be tattooed with great skill and confidence. Much emphasis is put on its ability to last through the remainder of our lives. What is to say the contemplation of obtaining a tattoo is less important than the process of receiving it or living with it. Perhaps these aspects are dynamically inseparable. Thanks again.

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