Tattoos aren’t just for Bad Girls and Bikers anymore.
Some version of that has been used as a headline when the mainstream media covers the tattoo community for years; a declaration that tattoos can be art and that we have the capability to be upstanding citizens and not just a bunch of reprobates and misfits up to no good. As you can imagine, that comes as a great comfort to us as tattooed people.
The media’s perception of tattoos has shifted over the last thirty years though. What was once a quirky fluff story (where celebrities and non bikers/badgirls were highlighted) that popped up once a year in most major newspapers is now front page ad-bait guaranteed to draw in both tattooed and untattooed readers; the quick blurb about tattooed musicians on Entertainment Tonight with a cheeky head-shake from John Tesh or Mary Hart has become a rock star co-opting tattoo culture and hosting a tattoo competition show watched primarily by people with very few tattoos/connection to the tattoo community.
The landscape has changed and despite missing the ‘old days’ I have to hesitantly admit that it’s mostly for the better.
One of the nodal points in that shift was the 1982 ‘Queen Mary’ Tattoo Convention (officially The Tattoo Expo: Long Beach) in Southern California. Put on by Triple-E Productions- Ed Hardy, Ed Nolte, and Ernie Carafa- the Queen Mary pushed the Tattoos As Art aesthetic in ways that previous conventions never dreamed of- including getting a proclamation from then Governor Brown that tattoos were the ‘primal parent of visual arts’. The lineup was spectacular; Michael “Rollo Banks” Malone, Don Nolan, Peter Poulos, Cliff Raven, Bob Roberts, Jack Rudy, Pinky Yun and Sacred Debris favorite Sailor Sid Diller (pictured above).
By the time I started going to tattoo conventions- some eight years after the Queen Mary- it’s effect on the tattoo culture were unmistakable.
Executive Department, State of California.
The Queen Mary, Long Beach California.
The tattoo is a primal parent to the visual arts. Beginning as abstract maps of spiritual visions, records of the “other” world, tattoos were icons of power and mystery designating realms beyond normal experience.
The extra-ordinary qualities of the tattoo’s magic-religious origin remain constant even today transferring to the bearer some sense of existing outside the conventions of normal society.
In decadent phases, the tattoo became associated with the criminal– literally the outlaw–and the power of the tattoo became intertwined with the power of those who live beyond the norms of society.
Today, the realm of the outlaw has been redefined: the wild places which excite the most profound thinks are conceptual. Tattooing is in a renaissance. It has reemerged as a fine art attracting highly trained and skilled practitioners. Current creative approaches are infusing this traditional discipline with new vigor and meaning.
At the time when these artists from around the world meet in California to share, teach and celebrate their skills, it seems appropriate to remind Californians that the tattoo is indeed one of the most ancient arts.
EDMUND G. BROWN JR.
November 12th, 1982