Art and Tattooing: Tradition and Post Modernism

by Colin Higgins

“I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies” – Le Corbusier

Ever since I can remember I loved to draw. As a kid I drew continuously on anything I could get my hands on. From my love to draw came my love of art in general. As a kid I loved comics, and aspired to draw as well as the artists who filled their pages. As a teenager I continued to collect comics. About this time period I also gained in an interest in tattoos. Before the 90’s were done I was getting tattooed and loving it. After I graduated high school I worked construction for some time before making the decision to go to university and major in studio art. I had no real aspiration to use the degree I was working towards as a gateway to a career of any kind, I just loved drawing and wanted to learn how to draw better. School opened my eyes wide, as I learned techniques and tradition when it came to drawing, painting, and printmaking. I also minored in art history and gained a broad appreciation for the greater history of the visual arts. Once I graduated I got back into construction as a means of making money and continued to paint and draw in my spare time. I always liked tattoos, but more specifically loved art and drawing. So in 2004 I managed to land an apprenticeship at a tattoo shop. In tattooing as a career I saw an opportunity to be able to support myself through drawing, a dream come true. If I was going to pursue this avenue as a career I was going to try to do it proper, and so I sought out an apprenticeship at a fairly reputable shop in my hometown. During my apprenticeship I gained an overwhelming love of tattooing, that turned to passionate obsession. As I learned more about this craft I now call home I began to see tattooing within a context that intertwines it with the progression of the visual arts as a whole. A powerful art form that plays with the illusion of permanence (our tattoos last forever on us, but we do not last forever on this earth), uses the most of post modernist art theory, and at the same time honors tradition and history.

From the moment people started drawing on cave walls the visual arts were born. For ages people strove to use visual art as a way to represent what they saw realistically. Gradually, over the course of centuries drawing, painting, and sculpture attained a more realistic representative ability peaking with ancient Greek and Roman times. With the incredible classic sculptures of the gods and emperors, produced in the heyday of the roman empire, realism had come to a peak. It was now possible for art to be created that looked as real as people turned to stone. Then the dark ages hit, Christianity rose, the roman empire fell, and the clock on art as a historical narrative went back to square one. Once again there was a steady climb from early christian artwork towards realistic representation. Centuries past and the visual arts became more refined peaking with the european renaissance. With the paintings of Leonardo, the sculptures of Michelangelo, the prints of Durer, and the works of the other greats of this era mankind had found itself able to represent in a two dimensional way a fully realistic looking image. So if the whole journey of visual arts was leading towards the ability to realistically represent, where do you go from there? After the renaissance we get art movements involving realistic representation designed in ways to elicit dramatic emotional response from the viewer. Baroque, rococo, romanticism, and many other movements came and went, all using visual art in a realistically represented manor. Then came the advent of the camera.

By burning light to produce a two dimensional image photography could represent realistically in a way painting and drawing never could. From this point forward the visual arts supremacy as a means to represent realistically in a two dimensional format was crushed. As a reaction to the existence of photography visual art movements started to look deeper at what you can do with paintings, drawings and everything else. From here we get impressionism. No longer does the painter labour to blend seamlessly. Brushstrokes are made large and visible, paint is applied thickly, and blends are made harsh with stark contrast. The logic behind this kind of painting was that the painter was letting the viewer know they were looking at a painting. Photos can represent realism in a two dimensional format better than can be painted so make your movements obvious. Relish in your medium, and let the audience know that they are looking at a painting. This was the attitude that birthed this newer, more unrealistic way to represent. Impressionism led to post impressionism, to expressionism, to post expressionism, to more movements and eventually to abstraction. With abstraction the painter is no longer trying to represent anything at all. This changes the focus of conversation towards color choice, movement, balance, tone, contrast and a million other things. With abstraction we come to modernism.


Modernism teaches the visual arts as a moving narrative as I have outlined it. When I first started reading about modernism I loved it. It teaches art as a series of movements, one logically birthing the next. Teaching visual art as one giant narrative is intensely appealing from a learning perspective. The only problem with it is that as a narrative it should come to a conclusion. So by this logic with what movement does it end? Perhaps with suprematism, a movement that breaks the visual down to its simplest form, the breaking of the two dimensional plane. Maybe art ends with constructivism, the idea that art and aesthetic should be seamlessly integrated with every aspect of life (clothes, chairs, signs, cars, everything) and traditional visual forms be abandoned. In any case the idea that visual art should come to an end at all is beyond discouraging. From here I started looking more at the ideas behind post modernism.


Post modernism starts with the assumption that everything has already been done. The most we an hope to do is to combine things that have been successfully done already and through combining them create something new. The band The Police uses reggae verses and rock choruses and by doing so creates something that sounds original. Pulp Fiction references so many different pop culture things it garners a mystique that sets it apart from everything else. These are two popular examples of post modernism in action.  Through the logic of post modernism if there is something that is truly original, that has never been done, theirs a reason, it doesn’t work. People who are working to try to find the idea that is completely new are fooling themselves. Your either going to end up coming up with something that has definitely been done before (and probably better), or your going to come up with something truly original, and god awful. From here I go to tattooing.


As I said above; the best way to come up with something that seems truly unique is to combine elements that are provenly successful. To do this to any degree of success one must do their homework and find out what has been done over the ages, and what does work. As applied to successful tattooing I turn to the traditional forms of Polynesian, Japanese, and American tattooing. For the purposes of this written piece I find these three styles work best, not to discredit the amazing work done in the fields of black and gray portraiture, west coast fine line, eastern pointillism, and the dozens of other styles of tattooing I’m not mentioning.

Tattoo by Horitaka
Tattoo by Horitaka

Polynesian tattooing has centuries of tradition in its application of patterns. Their are an abundance of patterns in existence and an even greater number of ways to combine them. The tattooing is black on skin tone, creating the ultimate in contrast. The harshness of solid black to skin tone makes for a look second to none. With traditional japanese tattooing the application is once again built for ultimate contrast. Backgrounds done in dark blacks and grays (wind, clouds, water), foreground subjects in solid easily differentiable colors. The effect is to achieve a scene or image easily readable to the viewer. If I can’t tell what’s going on in a large japanese piece after looking at it for more than a few seconds it is not a successful tattoo.As for what is being tattooed (the subject matter), one must do their homework if it is to be done successfully. If I want to tattoo a three legged frog I’m going to look at a variety of successful three legged frog designs and tattoos and look for common denominators. This same approach should be used when tattooing American traditional.


American traditional tattooing primarily deals with the same archetypal motifs in different combinations, hearts, wings, daggers, etc. That is  not to say that you can tattoo this type of imagery and call it American traditional regardless of how it is shown. American traditional tattooing is most definitely concerned with how it is done. Lines are to be clean and color solid. Harkening to the thought process behind impressionist painting, that the art form should let the viewer know what they are looking at and rather than hide the way the image is applied it should be flaunted, American traditional tattooing follows the same logic. Where shade in an image goes from absolute black to skin tone the ink is “whipped”, creating a speckled peppery look. With this effect the tattooer is letting the viewer know that he is making a tattoo and not ashamed of it. The peppery look created by the needles being pushed across the skin is a testament to the medium of tattooing itself. With the selection of subject matter and the manner in which it is drawn homework must be done. If I want to tattoo a heart with a dagger through it I’m going to look at multiple images of daggers and hearts to find common denominators. At this point in my exploration of American traditional I’m going to emphasize the word tradition. To find successful versions of daggers I am best advised to look at a variety of reference, not just one guy. I’m also best off looking at older imagery, in order to stay true to the roots of the style. As soon as your looking at the roots of the style and analyzing what the common denominators are across the board for the same motif your figuring it out. To do this properly you have to look at the original masters of this style, to figure out who they are you have to learn the history of the style, and so to endeavor to properly draw a dagger one should be learning a respect for those who came before him. That is to say, to successfully tattoo in the American Traditional style one does the style, its history, and traditions a great service of study and an attempt at understanding. This same process of learning in order to properly practice can be equally applied to Japanese traditional or Polynesian traditional.

Tattoo by Colin Higgins
Tattoo by Colin Higgins

At no point should the appropriation of aspects of an image be confused with grifting. Grifting is the straight up copying of something successful and passing it off as ones own original. The grifter has either copied something exactly or changed so little that the images ability to masquerade as something original is completely see through. To properly appropriate, one is taking minute details of successful imagery across a variety of references and combining it all in an image that in no way looks like a specific other piece in every way, yet looks exactly like every other successful depiction of that motif in a curiously vague way. By the same token the rules of how things are to be represented must be learned. If one was to draw an American traditional eagle in a way never done before your doing it wrong. So in short; to grift is to disrespect one specific other person who practices this style, to properly reference or appropriate is to honor tradition, and to create anew within a style based on the maintenance of tradition is to disrespect all who properly practice this style.


The continual ebb and flow of imagery within these traditional styles keeps them alive. The combining of successful images to create new successful images applies post modernism as I understand it to the form of art I live within. From what I have laid out one could construe that to successfully tattoo one must learn a history and in doing honor their field.


I return here at the end to my highly biographical introduction. 2 years after I started my apprenticeship I started to tattoo. 2 years after that I opened my own shop with a handful of like minded tattooers. 6 years after that is where I stand now. During my apprenticeship I learned about the making of needles, machines, the ins and outs of the industries secrets passed down through the years within the circles of we who are dedicated to this craft, away from public knowledge, as it should be. Now years later I tattoo and draw everyday, and paint as often as my time can afford. Forever trying to learn and grow within the imagery I represent while maintaining its rules and traditions, be it on paper, skin or canvas.

“Tradition is a guide, and not a jailer.” – W. Somerset Maugham



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