Inkology: Bridging the Gap Between Tattoos and Traditional Art

Apo Whang-od, the world’s oldest and most influential tattoo artist turned 107 in February. She is referred to as the last traditional mambabatok (Traditional Kalinga style) tattoo artist who is keeping the over 1000-year-old art alive. Whang-od’s hand-tapped tattoos are intricately connected with the Filipino culture and can portray a variety of concepts ranging from personal achievements and experiences to social status or even be seen as a rite of passage for the wearer. Even with the impressive connection between these tattoos and Filipino culture, you would be unlikely to find them, or any tattoo for that matter within a traditional art museum. 

Despite standing as a unique vessel of self-expression and creativity, it seems as if connoisseurs and exhibit curators collectively decided to omit body art throughout their discussions and presentations of art. Objectively, it’s difficult to put a label on what is art, however most can agree that it is a form of human expression along with the application of creative skill or imagination. Tattoos play a considerable role in how humans can express themselves or share their stories.

The history of artistic body modification is storied with tattoos that serve myriads of purposes. In their studies, anthropologists uncovered that ancient Egyptians often modified their bodies to depict their emotions or to portray certain ideas. It was not uncommon for certain people to be tattooed as a tribute to a particular deity, or even as simple as a representation of fertility. These forms of human expression are fascinating and tell the story of not only human history but also the human psyche. 

Evaluating the impact of art and the ways people express themselves is at the core of every art exhibit, and it is impossible to tell the story of humanity without including tattoos. Body modifications have long played a role in significant human experiences including the shift in societal beliefs and even certain resistance movements. One of the more popular examples of this is the Chicano movement of the 1960s, which sought to combat the structure of racism in the United States by embracing Mexican American culture. One of the common forms of expression was the adorning of tattoos that expressed Aztec and Mexican cultural symbols. Another example of humans using tattoos as a form of unity against an unjust cause is the pink triangle tattoo that many members of the LGBTQ community don as a symbol of resistance against discrimination. The tattoo is an ironic spit in the face of oppression since it was originally to segregate homosexuals during the time of the Holocaust. 

Gone are the days of Da Vinci art pieces or Michelangelo sculptures. Today, due to the highly saturated market, modern art is everywhere. Regardless, tattoos have been able to carve out and even supersede painting-related art. Many would be hard-pressed to name examples of prominent modern paintings while tattoos are plentiful. Modern tattoos that arguably should be talked about more at exhibits include Dwayne the Rock Johnson’s tribute to his Polynesian heritage, Rihanna’s Egyptian goddess tattoo and most iconic of all Mike Tyson’s face tattoo. 

The perspective surrounding tattoos being seen as a lesser form of art than traditional forms of art should be re-evaluated. Tattoos are vessels of self-expression and creativity that can represent not only a culture but human essence and spirit as a whole.

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