My Tattoo is Contemporary Art


tracey-emin-my-bed

My Bed by Tracey Emin

My Grandma was a teacher, a pianist, a classically trained singer and, according to an eavesdropped conversation, a Bohemian. She seemed perfectly normal to me. As did her practice of pinning plastic shopping bags with attractive pictures, to her walls.

If we’re going to consider ‘what is contemporary art’, I think it has to be in the broader context of ‘what is art’: What makes the difference between an ‘old master’ original, a high quality print and my grandma’s shopping bag gallery? Where does the art start and stop?

Apart from stories of a childhood, surrounded by ‘still life through the medium of utilitarian plastic’, the relevance here is that I think contemporary art – and art in general – is defined by intent.

Is a Neolithic cave painting art or writing? Are Joseph Beuy’s fat and felt shapes art or art therapy to get over his experiences in the Second World War? Is a man spending three hours in a small room, having his head and hands encased in plaster in an attempt to transform himself physically and psychologically into a praying mantis ‘art’, or just self indulgent exhibitionism? We’ll come back to the mantis later.

For me, ‘art’ is about intent. The intent of the person either creating art – the artist – or by the individual who has taken something existing and presented it as art . Whether someone likes or dislikes what is presented as art, is only a matter of opinion – just because I can’t stand tripe and onions doesn’t stop it being ‘cooking’ and a burnt cake is still a cake, by intent.

Art, as we’ve defined it throughout human history, has been evolving and becoming ever more complex and sophisticated in what it requires from an audience’s understanding. At every stage of art’s development, there has been controversy and claims that this or that artist’s work ‘isn’t art’ – Picasso’s cubism, because it wasn’t naturalistic; Beethoven’s music was a ‘cacophony’ presumably because it didn’t sound like Mozart. We are now at a stage when again what is being labelled as contemporary art is often considered by Joe Public as definitely not art. I’d ask what is the difference between an artist copying a scene in oil paints and an artist taking a part of their real life and presenting it in the context of art for contemplation and reflection, juxtaposed in a gallery space rather than in situ – Tracey Emin’s ‘My bed’? (see above).

tattooThe ‘contemporary’ bit is a semantic thing for me and represents a progression in thinking of art that is beyond traditional boundaries of definition – painting, sculpture, dance, music, passive consumption – and represents the intent of the artist and the experience of the audience. It shows another step of artistic evolution, something like Art2.0 in technology terms, where boundaries blur, audiences can interact with art and the artist or change a piece through their interaction . . . where art is generated by any intended interaction or intervention with materials (or the world) for purposes the artist chooses to see as ‘art’.

When the birth of my son approached, I was conscious that my life was going to change forever. I knew that my partner was going to go through childbirth and all that it entailed, but I was also conscious that apart from being there for emotional support, my only real objectives on this momentous occasion were to make sure I didn’t bump into any equipment and let the professionals get on with their work. But I felt that this had to be marked somehow – the transition from ‘man’ to ‘father’.

A few years earlier, in a museum, we’d seen a design from an archaeological artefact that looked like it would make a good tattoo. In the way many of us think, “I’ll get a tattoo one day”, it was forgotten. With the birth approaching, I snatched a copy of the design from the museum, had my partner photograph my back and used Photoshop to mock up how I wanted the design to look.

Three hours in the tattoo studio left me with an abstract outline that runs the length of my back, and makes me the only person to use this design since the original artist embossed it on his sword’s scabbard, two and a half thousand years ago. In celebration of my son’s birth, I had – with intent – conducted my own little neo-tribal ritual that involved my people’s history, ritual, pain, psychological realisation, visual design and the ability to sum this up and show this intent to others in its final medium – my living skin: I’d be prepared to argue that this was and is art. Contemporary art, if it needs a label.

I studied one of the few degrees in Contemporary Art in the UK and have had picnics with dolls made from meat and organs under winter trees with apples tied on the branches; I’ve dressed in a dinner suit and sung cabaret songs about the popularised Japanese ninja, ‘the man behind the mask’, and their metaphor for our complex psychological states and presentations of ‘self’; I’ve sword-swallowed garden shears after hacking angel wings off another performer; created ‘Latin for tourists’ and yes, I was that mantis.

My work now is with the web – no, I’m not ‘in IT’, I’m a User Experience Designer (UXD) who balances business requirements against audience needs and hand my conceptual plans to proper IT people and graphic designers to build it and make it beautiful. In effect I’m still doing what I’ve done with my visual art and performances in the past – understanding how to communicate concepts and then choosing the best medium.

A project that I’m very excited about is a collaboration between myself, the proprietor of a business theatre company and the creative director of an advertising agency. We’re taking the idea of business training and taking it away from hotel conference rooms and into a more theatrical and experiential medium. My intent is to provide both an excellent entertainment and a learning experience. But is it art – contemporary art?

Yes.

I’m blurring the boundaries of traditional artistic disciplines and engaging my audience in an appreciation of the presentation and dialogue around the content. In some small way, I would hope it will change their way of looking at their world.

More on that later, as it comes in.

The Long Dog.

mini-meThe Long Dog – Jason Buck – lives in a 200 year old cottage near the coast in southern England. He graduated from University with a degree in Contemporary Arts, majoring in Performance Art. He has created performances, extreme cabaret and stand-up comedy. After missing out on the luxuries of life (food, housing etc) he got a ‘proper’ job as a web, digital and communications professional and now uses the artistic skills he learnt in translating concepts into meaning, for advising large companies on how to create websites. He’s worked for organisations including Rolls-Royce, the Financial Times and the UK Government. He shares his life with his girlfriend, their son and an increasing number of chickens. Web and digital blog and Business profile




  • Brilliant bit on tattoo. I could not agree more on intent, especially when art has so far reached beyond fixed definition. Do you feel that your tattoo belongs more to you or to the tattoo artist? And for what reasons?