Your Body As Canvas

Did you ever watch Work of Art, that weird Bravo reality show that was a cross between America’s Next Top Model and finals period at every art institute in the world? Essentially, at the end of every episode, the assorted artists were supposed to create an artistic masterpiece inspired by that episode’s theme; it was a ludicrous plot line, not nearly as decadent as its fashion-driven predecessors, and the show was cancelled after two seasons. I loved every minute of it.

From that show, though, I was introduced to New York’s art critic Jerry Saltz, solely referred to on the show as “Art-Critic-Jerry-Saltz,” one of the best critics in the biz, due to his unpretentious reckoning and understanding of the discipline. (I suppose now is the time where I give you the disclosure that I used to work at New York, where Jerry was easily the most pleasant person ever to work in that office. He was always either in pursuit of snack or ready to share his with you. One time I taught him how to use a microwave. He has no idea who I am.)

Anyway! Jerry compiled The Best Art Tattoos of All Time, which, again with that pesky disclosure, I am a part of. The tattoos all range the gamut, from the initials of Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. to full-blown recreations of Picasso’s Guernica and Lichenstein’s Drowning Girl. I have the Basquiat crown; when I went to the shop, the artist saw my photograph and breathed a sigh of relief. “You’re a girl and you came in saying you want a crown; I thought it was going to be ornate and shit and I’d have to be here all night!” He was not familiar with the work.

But this compilation has made me think: why are people driven to immortalize these works of art — images that vary in their familiarity, but are wholly unoriginal to viewers — on their bodies? The chief reason may be just that “it looks cool,” which is as good a reason as any to get a tattoo. But what drives us to copy these trademarked images, and what does it mean that these tattoo artists are essentially creating forgeries, just on a different canvas? I have no answers; if anything, perhaps it means that the intention of artist — the obvious, widespread declaration to “make someone feel something” — actually worked? But I’m still left with so many questions, most of all: are these tattoos art?

Saltz provides a short anecdote about the opening tattoo:

Above is the legendary Ellsworth Kelly working out his tattoo design on Carter Foster’s forearm. Kelly gave Foster’s tattoo, executed by Scott Campbell, an inventory number and considers it one of his works of art.

There’s one answer, and damn if it’s isn’t cool as shit.

More ...