When Will Tattoos Turn Into Artwork?

When Will Tattoos Turn Into Artwork?

Avatar of Rodrigo Ayala

By: Rodrigo Ayala

March 23, 2017

Art When Will Tattoos Turn Into Artwork?
Avatar of Rodrigo Ayala

By: Rodrigo Ayala

March 23, 2017

When did bullfights start to be considered a sport? When did graffiti become an artistic discipline? At what moment did Duchamp's Fountain stop being conceived as a simple urinal and started to be classified as art? When we look back, we find it hard to find the answer and the same applies to tattoos.

 Cristian Petru Panaite, assistant curator of exhibitions at the New York Historical Society (NYHS), states that "if a person intends for their tattoos to be art, then they are." This approach serves as a starting point to figure out when does a tattoo —as simple or as complex as it may be— become an artistic work.

tattoo and arts map

A tattoo design may or may not express the artist's or wearer's deepest feelings. Is it the joint inspiration of two minds that turns a tattoo into something unique and therefore artistic? Most artworks function that way, the unbreakable link between the viewer and the creator. What about Panaite's statement regarding the wearer's subjective feelings? If the tattoo design evokes an important life event for its owner, is that enough to consider it a piece of art?

tattoo and arts arm

Another aspect we should stop to consider is where the tattoo comes from. Nowadays, tattoo artists are defined by a popularity owed to a unique style they've created, which stands out from the rest. It is when they gain recognition for their designs that they earn the moniker of "artist." From that moment on, any design or image drawn by their hand and signed will immediately be regarded as art.

tattoo and arts back
There is another element vital to this question: any artwork aspires to be preserved for posterity. Tattoos lack this quality for an obvious reason: sooner or later the wearer will die. In this case we can talk about  fleeting and ephemeral art that will only bring delight for a given amount of time until its eventual disappearance. Artworks like sculptures, paintings, music, or cinema have the means to endure the passing of time and transcend their creators' death. Does that mean that just because tattoos seem to be doomed to disappear they can't become artworks?

tattoo and arts

Let's think about artistic activities like performance, despite its "ephemeral" nature, it is still called art. Its representation lasts only a moment and when it concludes it leaves no trace, only memories and feelings in the mind of the spectator. Their expressions, discourse, and execution make it art by its own right. Thus, it is fair to say that tattoos belong to this "ephemeral" artistic category. 
Wouldn't you agree?
Now we have the possibility to preserve tattoos for posterity. The National Association For The Preservation Of Skin Art is a non-profit organization that recovers tattoos from people who have passed away and exhibits them as art pieces, with previous authorization of the tattooed person, of course.
This has endowed tattoos with new possibilities: the artist's work is no longer attached to the lifespan of their client; it can survive and also, be appreciated in ways that had never been explored before. At long last, tattoos will leave the "ephemeral" ground to attain immortality and demand their own right to be fully appreciated as art.

tattoo and arts geometric 

The human body is a moving canvas. It possesses the perfect forms and proportions to be decorated by its owner. The potential to adjust the designs to an arm, hand, or foot will depend on the artist's skill and creativity.

It doesn't matter if a tattoo is done for spiritual or mundane reasons. It will end up accomplishing an artistic status once the tattoo's esthetics are juxtaposed against the body's esthetics.

tattoo and arts men
We should consider tattoos works of art if they combine the following elements: an esthetic execution (an adequate blend of colors, perspective and strokes), a meaning which transcends mere esthetics (having a design that holds meaning to the wearer and is not just decorative), and its ability to stand out as a unique design that emerged from the artist's mind. What else would you add?


This millenarian art will continue to raise questions and open up debates among its adherents. Only the audience, critics, and artists will decide when tattoos will cease to be decorative elements to become transcendental expressions with artistic value.   

tattoo and arts cover

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Translated by Andrea Valle Gracia