Tattoos are fascinating works of art because they’re on people; living canvases. I am interested in exploring how much the person being alive matters to the tattoo as an artwork – if at all.
The obituary of Saskatchewan tattoo artist Chris Wenzel acknowledges him as a wonderful and humble husband, survived by his wife Cheryl and their sons. I’ve never met Chris, but I have seen what’s left of him; fulfilling his final request, Cheryl, like any good partner, had her husband skinned and his tattoos preserved. I’ve been aware of the preservation for over a year, but it wasn’t until a recent tattoo convention in Winnipeg that I finally got the opportunity to see Chris’s skin.
My friend Carolyn and I were browsing the stalls, collecting cards, and hoping to chance upon an available artist who could tattoo us, when she pointed out a makeshift room in the corner of the convention centre. I was ecstatic. We entered the room constructed out of particle-board dividers and were greeted by a jovial woman (a tattoo artist from Electric Underground Tattoo) and one of Chris’s sons: “This is his dad!” She said, with a bit too much enthusiasm. “We’re from Chris’s shop.”
I wasn’t sure what to say back – stunned into awkward silence by the son looking at the skin of his deceased father so harshly juxtaposed with the overly excited woman. Carolyn and I stared at the wall in awe. Chris’s son was staring too, making the tension between life and death in the room far thicker than I could have imagined. The central piece on display is a tattoo from Wenzel’s back and shoulders that looks eerily like a large butterfly in a shadowbox; colourful, delicate, and still. I think Wenzel’s skin raises fascinating questions about what tattoos are, and how they get twisted up in the lives of their bearers; Wenzel wanted his tattoos to “outlive him”, but in that room I really wondered whether they can. Something was missing.
The preservation of tattoos post-mortem is an increasingly common practice. Save My Ink Forever (SMIF) is a US based company that works with funeral homes to preserve the tattoos of their customers. SMIF was created to offer families mementos of their deceased loved ones and save the work of tattoo artists. A SMIF mortician in an interview notes: “If you have a tattoo by Sailor Jerry, letting it burn or decompose is just disappointing to history.”
I agree; unlike many other artists, tattoo artists must commit to the impermanency of their work. People die and the artwork on their bodies typically goes to the grave with them, but SMIF is making it so that it doesn’t have to – with full consent of course; post-mortem tattoo preservation has a dark and thorny past. But even though SMIF can save the tattoo artist’s work, I don’t think they can save the whole tattoo.
A natural question is: “what is missing from the tattoo – if anything?” We might initially think that a tattoo is just like a painting on skin, and SMIF can save that! Perhaps preservationists don’t save the shape (they lay the tattoo flat), but most of the work is preserved, especially the ink. In this case, we are assuming that Chris being alive doesn’t add anything to his tattoo at all; he’s merely a fleshy canvas, and any other fleshy canvas would have done just fine. I don’t think this is true.
So, what exactly might living people add to their tattoos? Well, for one, people’s intentionsmight aesthetically add to their tattoos. Many of our social practices suggest this: we often ask people “what does your tattoo mean?” and take their answers seriously when we evaluate and admire their tattoos. Though it would be bizarre if I were to seriously claim that a print of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers hanging in my bedroom represents my mother – as in, Van Gogh’s original artwork is actually about my mother – if I were to claim that a tattoo I had of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers represents my mother, one might be inclined to agree that the tattoo on me actually represents my mother. Some people are also quite involved with the design of their tattoo: they might draw something on their own and get an artist to execute it. Here, we might think that tattoo belongs on them and only them in an important way. There are good reasons to believe that people (not just their bodies) affect their tattoos in these intentional ways. Of course, a person makes these intentional contributions to their tattoo at some point before they die, so we might think they can be preserved too; many artists die but the intentions they brought to their artworks live on after them. This doesn’t show that a living person affects their tattoos in such a way that their preserved tattoo is missing something that their tattoo had when they were alive.
But the influence people have over their tattoos isn’t always intentional – like it is in the Sunflowers case. Many people get tattoos with very little intentions; they might simply like the artist and ask the artist to do whatever work they would like, or pick the first image they like online, etc. Though some people might intentionally influence their tattoos, all people unintentionally influence their tattoos, constantly. If Eleanor gets a tattoo when she is 18 of a skeleton in a cloak holding a skeleton baby to mimic the image on the black metal band Uada’s album “Devoid of Light” and tells people that tattoo represents her love of metal and how metal she is, if it turns out that she actually just had a bit of an identity crisis and prefers indie folk music, does not know a ton about metal, is currently a bit of a nerd who is not in fact metal at all, then it seems like her tattoo does not get to be metal, no matter how much she wants it to be. People might initially misinterpret Eleanor’s tattoo when seeing it without knowing her, but once they discover who she is as a person, the tattoo will reveal itself as being startlingly incongruous with her personality. Though we have some sort of control over what our tattoos mean to us, we cannot force them to mean things inauthentically.
Call this unintentional dynamic aesthetic influence “character”, and let character be sourced from everything about you that is not your physical body; your personality, the way you present yourself, your memories and inner feelings, etc. These aspects of a person cannot survive their death; character is what living people add to their tattoos. Think of a tattoo like a performance artwork, the ink on your skin is a prop, and you, who you are inside and how your present yourself constantly performs the tattoo for the world. If that performance changes (your personality changes) than the tattoo aesthetically changes as well. For the philosophers out there, it’s worth noting that I don’t think a tattoo becomes a different artwork every time its aesthetic properties shift as the result of a shift in character, but this requires more exploration.
The presence of this character influence gives us a sensible explanation for why people with perceptually identical tattoos have different works of art on their skin, even if they look the same – at least insofar as we think people’s personalities can never be identical. If my traditional, bubbly grandmother and I agree to get matching tattoos and I somehow convince her to get a tattoo of a skull vomiting tiny skulls, then that tattoo on her is going to represent something different – and be a different tattoo – than the perceptually identical matching tattoo of a skull vomiting tiny skulls alongside my other skull tattoos. Who she is and who I am will add meaning to our tattoos independently: her tattoo will represent her relationship with me and seem startlingly dark, while mine will represent my relationship with her and seem fittingly dark. This seems like the right result! Many people have similar tattoos, but who they are as people has the potential to make them distinct artworks.
Perhaps one thinks that character cannot affect the aesthetic features of the tattoo as strongly as I think it can, because the physical art (the design in ink) will overpower any influence from the living person the ink is on. However, the non-physical features of an artwork can have significant aesthetic force. For certain art-forms, like conceptual art, non-physical features of the work often matter more than the physical ones. Marco Evaristti’s “Helena” – a collection of ten live goldfish in ten white blenders – relies much more on the aesthetic power of the ideas behind the work than the visual aspects of the work. A white blender is not the most beautiful object, nor a goldfish the most elegant animal (sorry goldfish lovers) – it’s the disgust and fear we feel when confronted by the goldfish in the blenders, their life in the hands of the audience, that is the source of the aesthetic power of the piece.
Character for tattoos is similarly influential. For example: a faded tattoo of an encircled “A” on a former anarchist might be a fittingly rebellious artwork if she has stayed committed to a grungy personal presentation. On the other hand, if she now dresses in suits and works for the government, her tattoo might be better called aesthetically ironic. Either way, this faded “A” would be a dimensionless and boring artwork without the influence of the anarchist’s character; it is who she is that brings the work to life. Separating her from the tattoo would be like taking the goldfish out of the blender.
I’ve seen a lot of bad tattoos in my time, but I’ve also seen a lot of bad tattoos made great by their people. A mother with poorly executed star sign tattoos makes them heartfelt when she tells you they’re for her children. A bad stick-and-poke is an indication of a night or youth well spent. And as my tattoo artist tells me, all the tattoos his friends give him to practice their work are indications of what he does and his general acceptance of the impermanency of his body.
It is this influence of one’s character, who they are as a person and how that presents their tattoo to the world that is missing from Chris’s shadowbox. I can’t meet Chris, I can’t speak with him or see who he was in life. I suppose I can ask around, but he’s not in that glass case to give his tattoo life. I think I am saddened by a preserved tattoo for the same reason that I am saddened by not being able to see Goya’s black paintings as they were in the Quinta del Sordo, the horrifying murals of witches and titans spread throughout the walls of his home. When the canvas is lost or broken or dies, and it contributed so much to the work, the artwork that’s left feels vacant.
I think it’s fair to conclude that a person’s character matters to their tattoos, and it matters aesthetically. Exactly what this effect is and how it translates from the person to the artwork needs to be fleshed out, but I think that there is a significant influence. Additionally, what this means for a tattoo’s ability to survive death is debatable, maybe it means that tattoos can’t be properly preserved at all, or maybe it simply explains the emptiness I felt standing in front of Chris’s skin in that small make-shift room at the tattoo convention. We might think that SMIF can still preserve what is left of the artwork, even if it ends up missing something. A lot of artworks can deteriorate over time and we see no problem saying that they’re still around: the Venus De Milo’s lack of arms doesn’t mean that we are no longer encountering the artwork when we see it at the Louvre. I’m not sure whether the tattoo “dies” or not, but I do think Chris contributes something important to his tattoo, that his being alive brings the artwork to life, and SMIF can’t save that. There’s much to explore here.
I’ll conclude with a brief story that inspired this investigation. Carolyn, the dear friend that I attended the tattoo convention with has a tattoo that charmingly reads “future corpse”. She’s a death positivist and aspiring pathologist, so naturally, the tattoo is in her death plan: when she dies, someone has to take a permanent marker and cross out “future”. I laughed when she told me; the thought of someone close to her having to follow through with her request was admittedly amusing given its macabre underpinnings. Though the “future corpse” tattoo is a particularly explicit instance of a tattoo being affected by its canvas’s death. Dark daydreams and permanent markers aside, I think it does well to capture how much the canvas can influence the work of art on it. A lot happens when you die: you fade into the past, your earthly belongings become someone else’s, people mourn, celebrate, remember and forget you, your body begins to decompose, and you pass on to whatever awaits you in the next life. What remains here on earth will hardly be as it was, but if you have the right death plan, then perhaps any tattoos you had pass on to their next life too.