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The Hidden Art of Tattooists

What kind of art do tattooists create when they work on paper or canvas, rather than on a client's skin?

Thirty or forty years ago, the average tattoo shop was little more than a small, white room, its walls plastered with brightly colored images of skulls, dragons, anchors, flowers, and hearts (accompanied by such stock words as “Mom” or “Love” and “Hate”). There wasn’t a lot of shading in those images and, with each one outlined with a thick marker pen-like, black stroke, there was something cartoonish about them. 

This was the world of “flash” tattoos and sketchy characters. You didn’t need to be able to draw or to be artistic to work with flash tattoos. You bought a tattoo gun and a large batch of images, and when someone pointed and said “that one,” you traced it on his or her skin, following the outlines in thick black, and then colored it in. 

At that time, the majority of people wanting tattoos fell into one of three categories: sailors, criminals, or alternative types (punks, metalheads, or fetishists). Around, two decades ago, however, the world of tattooing suddenly changed. The taboo was gone. Overnight, everyone seemed to have some ink somewhere on their body. Even moms started getting them. 

But something else changed. Although flash art is still around, it’s been largely replaced by custom work. Outlines are out. Tones are in. And some of the most skilled tattooists can create work that resembles high-end illustration. 

If the essential quality of the tattooist of yesterday was the ability to get rough and ready with a client who didn’t want to pay, today, the ability to draw and paint is more useful. And with the rise of tattoo artists (rather than old school tattooists), there is an increasing -- if still niche -- interest in the art that they are doing outside of the shop. 

Although galleries have yet to catch on to tattoo art, one publishing house, Black Dagger Books, was recently launched with the sole intention of showcasing this hidden, private art of tattooists -- art that is made on paper or that gets painted on canvas, rather than inked into a client’s skin. 

Behind this venture is Josh Rowan and Travis Lawrence, both of them artists in their own right. Travis actually turned down an apprenticeship with a tattoo shop to go to art school, where he studied fine art and printmaking. Josh began his career as a tattooist. Then he started selling his own flash art. Later, he turned to graphic design and photography. In fact, so prolific was Josh in creating flash tattoo art that Travis says that “there was a point when you went to any tattoo shop in North America and there was probably a 50 percent chance that his work was in there.”

Although they had floated a lot of different ideas for potential projects, Josh and Travis finally settled on founding a publishing house that would focus on the private work of tattoo artists. “Josh had started releasing little books of his photography trips,” says Travis, “and we wanted to do that with visual artists. We were thinking about artists in general. But one of the things that really stood out was these tattooists and the work they were doing outside the shop, which gets embraced in the scene but isn’t necessarily recognized outside of it.” 

“We were seeing these tattooists who were putting in these ten-hour days and then they go home and do these paintings,” he says. “Some of it is tattoo-looking. A lot of it does go into enhancing their tattooing skills. But some of them were exploring different techniques and styles just to flex that creative muscle. And we wanted to embrace that.”

Starting in January, Black Dagger books will be releasing one book, about 80 pages in length, every month. “We wanted to focus on the individual artist, and regularly, so each month it’s going to be one featured artist and the work they’re creating,” says Travis. The aim, he adds, is to create something that’s “almost like the National Geographic of tattooing.” 

The first artist that Black Dagger will feature is Josh Chapman, whose work is influenced by classical mythology. “He began creating these hybrid type creatures, creating his own myths,” says Travis. “Then it shifted into these geometric landscapes. And now its these surreal, psychedelic patterns with otherworldly creatures.”

The second artist Black Dagger Books will be featuring is Marie Sena of the Electric Eye tattoo shop in Dallas, Texas. Full of skulls, women with large eyes, and teardrops, her work is wistful, romantic, reminiscent of Latin American folk art and a little like those illustrations on Marc and the Mambas record covers. 

But every Black Dagger artist has his or her own distinct style and distinct influences. Japanese woodblock art, Tibetan thangkas, ancient European mythology, and contemporary pop culture all seem to sneak into the pictures. And at a time when fine artists often seem more focused on investors than on art lovers, the once-private art of tattooists appears as accessible as it is weird and wonderful and as technically skillful as it is imaginative. 

If that sounds like your kind of thing, Black Dagger’s tattoo artist books can be purchased individually, or you can sign up with a subscription and receive a new book every month.