Alongside salient garments and accessories such as Levi’s 501s, the Breton shirt, the pearl necklace, and others replete with cultural charge such as the burkini, keffiyeh, hoodie, and kippah, MoMA’s new exhibition, ITEMS: Is Fashion Modern?, included tattoo as one of 111 items shaping the past, present, and future of fashion and identity.
The past 100 years has seen tattoo continue its ancient journey assisting in the construction, representation, and maintenance of self, society, and cultures across the globe. The exhibition’s curator, Paola Antonelli, chose two pieces by L.A based tattoo artist, Roxx, to illustrate the strong impact of item 98 on the world today. Respectively projected onto mannequins poised in the prestigious chambers of MoMA, New York, were a delicate geometric décolletage and a full-body tribal inspired back piece that looks like a sort of postmodern homage to Leo Zulueta.
“Tattoo to me is the enhancement and adornment of what nature has already given us,” Roxx tells me. “It’s a talisman. Tattoo tells our personal narrative, and makes us feel empowered. Tattoo is also body armour, and then, in another way, tattoo also makes the wearer feel sexier and more attractive.”
Originating from London, Roxx’s global exposure and aesthetically clean, bespoke, artistic and cutting-edge work, has seen her attract predominantly clear-skin (tattoo virgins) professionals from around the world, “not your average tattoo clientele,” she admits.
“I tattoo the full spectrum of professionals; surgeons, cardiologists, CEO’s, etc. Art enthusiasts see my work and think of it more as commissioning a piece of work they will carry with them forever.”
It has also seen her architecturally inspired line work and tribally potent swaths of precision blackwork exhibited in MoMA—an occasion she was rather taken aback by: “it is about time that tattoo got the appreciation it deserves in the art world. Why is a painting on canvas more exciting than one painted on human flesh?”
Once considered a means of defining oneself in opposition to mainstream society, the ever-increasing cultural value of tattoo continues to blur the distinctions between popular and high culture, allowing the work of prodigious tattooists to be professionally acknowledged and documented among other fine artists—despite the animated meat canvass. Such a process, however, pulls into focus lines being drawn within the tattoo world itself.
Although tattoo in many parts of the West has indeed become “fashionable”, the permanent, painful, ritualistic and lived inscriptions on the body places it at odds with the ephemeral nature of fashion and alienation of other consumer objects—tattoo is a product whose consumption cannot be divorced from its mode of production.
“I think the fact that tattoos are inherently not transitory is a huge part of what makes them fashion phenomena.”
Ultimately, the conditions of late modernity have rendered the body as something malleable—to be modified and improved according to our internal vision. Yet, as corporate culture industries like galleries, private museums, and the advertising industry, continue to include and ‘elevate’ the place of tattoo, such bodies of transgression become increasingly understood through the language of capitalism, as “art”, “object”, “high-fashion”—something to be objectively appraised. The gentrification of tattoo—its ‘elevation’ into the legitimizing world of art and fashion—has spawned a reactionary generation of anti-art tattooists who, in violating the norms of mainstream body art through indiscriminate, often unprofessional, primal, and aesthetically perverse and avant-garde pieces, are attempting to reposition the medium in opposition to mainstream tattoo and society—evoking its deviant and innately transgressive magic.
I sit down with Roxx to discuss these ideas including the paradox of tattoo as fashion item, the best and worst case scenarios for tattoo in 100 years, and what it’s like to live in a world where your barista has face and hand tattoos.
Why do you think tattoo was chosen as an item—juxtaposed among garments and accessories—that has influenced and shaped the world throughout the 20th and 21st century?
I think tattoo was chosen for its historical, cultural meaning in society—in the past, tattoo defined your tribe. Today tattoo is one of the most popular cultural items in our world. Tattooing has made its way onto the catwalk through collaborations between tattooists’ and fashion houses, as well as tattooists’ and their own fashion labels.
I also think many of the items included, for instance the bikini, mini skirt or Wonderbra, were a shock to society upon introduction. Society’s response to these items was a part of what made them so influential. Tattoo is something that continues to be shocking throughout its evolution and integration into culture and society as we know it.
Why do you think your work was chosen to illustrate tattoo at the exhibition?
I think my work was chosen because people see my work as art and design, rather than tattooing alone; within the context of the MoMA exhibition it provided a wider view of the different styles of tattooing that exist in the world today, outside of the traditional designs that people associate with tattooing.
Why did you choose those two pieces to exhibit?
The two pieces were chosen by the curator and the 3D laser technician for suitability to project on the model.
Do you consider tattoo a fashion item?
I think in this day and age tattoos are a fashion item. The Victorians also thought tattoos were quite fashionable. A way for individuals to identify with certain trends and groups. An external statement of the internal spirit. Tattoos have now evolved into a multi-dimensional art form, with styles that appeal to different tastes and sensibilities, from crude hand poke tattoos to heavy black, and everything in between.
I also consider tattoo a sacred, cultural art steeped in the history of mankind. It tells the story of history and culture since the invention of fire. I see tattoo on a spectrum that has many facets. It can be so many things—art, ritual, primitive and modern.
Fashion design is a form of art. As a designer, you should have an artistic and creative personality. Being able to draw and to express your ideas on paper is necessary. You don't have to be a great artist, but you must have some special skills for combining colours and textures. You also have to be able to work with fabric and use textiles in an original way. Fashion designers have a good visual imagination and are able to think in three-dimensions and put their ideas into wearable garments. I think tattoo designers also share these qualities, I think tattoo and fashion cross over in a similar way.
Notwithstanding, tattoo has its own trends. Why do you think some trends have persisted more than others, and what do you think drives a tattoo fad / trend?
I think that the styles that last are based upon classic historical styles of tattooing and are also styles that age well. Tattoos that have withstood the test of time, they carry their own historical meanings, and many people are attached to getting tattoos that they can personally relate to their own story. In present times, it is social media and celebrities that are really pushing tattoo trends. For instance, Cara Delevingne gets a small lion head on her finger and now everybody wants one.
If you had to choose another tattooist to take your place at the exhibition, who would it be and why?
I would have chosen Whang Od. She is a centurial, living and working in the Philippines, and has been tattooing her whole life. Her work is incredible. I thought she was going to be part of this exhibition, but I don’t think her work was included in the end.
From the 111 items exhibited, are there any that particularly resonate with you?
I think I’m rather fond of DM’s, or Dr. Martens, as they were a staple of my punk teenage years, memories, and lifetime ethos.
Tattoo appears to be the only permanent and embodied item among fashion ephemera. It is said that the “element of attraction” for any fashionable phenomena lies in its inherently “transitory character”, thus, once the mainstream adopts a fashion, it ceases to become fashionable. Undoubtedly, tattoo has become mainstream, yet it remains a resilient and increasingly popular cultural form. Why do you think this is?
I think that the fact tattoos are inherently not transitory is a huge part of what makes them fashion phenomena. Key tattoo styles like the “tramp stamp,” the "under-boob tattoo,” the “barb wire arm band” are immediately recognizable, and carry a nostalgia for past cultural trends. It’s kind of a way for a person to completely commit to being on trend during a particular wave of fashion, and carry that memory (or add to it) throughout their life.
I think tattoo has stayed resilient because it is marked upon the body. We are contained within this shell for our lifetimes, our bodies are inherently fascinating, and therefore, tattoo also. Of course, it is also ancient and modern, gives us meaning and defines us as humans.
As this exhibition declares, the contemporary cultural capital of tattoo is high. Do you think tattoos will succumb to the vagaries of consumer culture, becoming easily discarded or simply passé?
Tattoo is culturally at a historical high at this time in history. I really can’t see tattoo becoming passé. It’s a way to connect with ourselves, others, our transitions, and our own history in a spiritual way. I predict that in this world where we increasingly find ourselves lacking connection with humans and connecting more with technology, tattoo will become even more valuable. Tattoo has lasted through wars, revolutions, ice ages… It is indeed most resilient.
How has the production, supply, and consumption of tattoos developed since you became involved thirty years ago?
Tattooing used to be a much smaller industry, a novelty industry. Tattooists’ usually worked alone out of shops that they would work in for their entire life in London, my hometown. You could mostly only get flash done, custom tattooing was way less common. The customers were also different, people from various subcultures, counter-culture, outsiders, tattoos excluded you from mainstream society back then.
Now, the full gamut is represented from classic work to modern art, and everything in between. People fly across the world to get a piece by their chosen artist, they wait months, even years to get appointments and pay fortunes to have the work done.
Seeing a male supermodel with face tattoos is commonplace on catwalks. When I got into the industry, a face tattoo was a really scary thing to have—people would be very wary of you. Now, it’s normal to see face and hand tattoos on your local barista.
What do you think about the state of tattoo culture, art, and industry around the world today?
Honestly, I’m torn. One the one hand, I think it is fantastic that we are seeing such talented artists tattooing, the art side of tattooing is being taken to unimaginable heights. I’m really happy to see tattoo as an art form being recognized. I love seeing how many women, people of colour, queer and trans artists there are in the community these days. The diversity within tattooing is fantastic compared to when I started, it is moving away from being the male dominated industry it once was.
On the other hand, a lot of the magic of tattoo is being lost, the commercialization of tattooing is strange for me. I see many newer tattooists’ ripping off original work without a care, pretending it’s their own, with no original thought at all. I think the ways interlopers are trying to cash out on tattooing with ‘tattoo schools,’ which teach people how to tattoo in three weeks, are irresponsible.
You appear to have a diverse range of clientele, could you share some of their various motivations for getting tattooed? Have motivations changed with time?
The motivation ranges from purely aesthetic to marking a life moment; for instance, surviving a car accident, illness, or a break up. Some want to learn how to love their bodies through tattooing, reclaiming their bodies from sexual trauma and surviving cancer.
My typical client will come in and say they’ve never wanted to get a tattoo until they saw my work. They will usually have little to no tattooing, or have a small tattoo they want to cover from their youth, and this motivates them to get a larger piece. Then they get another large piece, and so on.
A study by German sociologists found they [the motivations] include beauty, art, fashion, individuality, personal narrative, physical endurance, group affiliation, resistance, spirituality, cultural tradition, addiction, pure impulsivity, and, of course, sexual attraction.
Where do you see tattoo art, industry, and culture in 100 years?
Best case scenario: it’s still an art form, perhaps one of the last remaining. Worst case scenario: you put your arm in a box, and tattoos are laser printed onto your skin, no human practitioner necessary!