This past weekend I was able to attend a day of the 7th Annual Star of Texas Tattoo Art Revival held in Austin, TX. The show was not bad and I did have a good time there. There were a few highlights, one of which was winning my first trophy. Well, actually, my artist Nick Baxter is responsible for the win as I am just a canvas.
I had never before entered a tattoo contest as I have previously only had a few small works done, and they are really not all that impressive. So, I was looking forward to this show where I would put myself up on stage for the first time. The competition looked REALLY good to me and I think I have a pretty discerning eye for derma graphics. There were three or four people there with work that I really thought was beautiful, technically fantastic, and imaginative. I was the eighteenth entrant and there was a lot of talk on stage about nice pieces, how things flowed, good color, etc… then they called me up there. I took off my shirt and showed the judges. The MC went ape shit over the work and the judges were so into the piece. I got to point out the portraits of my daughters hidden in the film and talk a little about the work itself.
This particular piece took about 37 hours over 12 months to complete. I was originally to begin having the work done in 2006, but the birth of my second daughter put that plan on hold for a little while. Eventually, I began in December of 2007 and was done by December 2008. I flew to Connecticut twice for my first three sessions with Nick (one session to start and later a weekend of back to back sessions). Next I was able to visit Nick at a shop in Dallas where he was doing a guest spot and I then visited him two more times at his new place in Austin, where he currently resides. We averaged a little over six hours of needle time each session, which works out to be a good place for me. I could go eight or nine hours if I had to, but that is like doing an Iron Butt on a bike… those last few hours get to be a bitch.
I had researched tattoo artists diligently for two or three years before I settled on Baxter. My criterion was an AMAZING artist who was not only technically proficient, but had vision. I put a lot of emphasis on artists who could really hold their own in the Fine Art Arena of painting, drawing, sculpture, etc. I wanted someone with a well-rounded art background who could create amazing work on skin and canvas. In researching people for the first “Artists of Permanence: the fine art of the tattooist” exhibition that I curated at the University of Houston- Clear Lake, I came across five or six artists that I would certainly love to have work on me. Why was Nick chosen first? Well, it came down to seeing a few of his previous works. First, I knew he could pull off a large piece that flowed together visually and conceptually; this was obvious by his portfolio. Second was a sleeve that he had worked on affectionately known as the “chair sleeve.” This work depicted different chairs by famous furniture designers. The chair portraits were fantastic, the leather looked like leather, the chrome like chrome, the plastic like plastic. Very hard to do and done very well. Lastly, Nick had pioneered the idea of the pixilated tattoo. He had done quite a few images that broke down into pixels and, being a photographer, I loved that idea!
I dropped him a note with some ideas to see if he was into it, and he said he would put me in the schedule. This was back in 2005. As I told you before, it took a little while to actually put needle to skin. I spent those days and nights dreaming up what the piece would look like, finding reference material, and researching different images. I believe this is a good process to go through, however, I ended up sending all my research to Nick in a huge packet of papers and images that were complete overload! As it turns out, I really needed the material and the ideas, and he was able to get the point by just talking to me and seeing a couple things. Not that he minded the paperwork, but it was much more useful to me than to him.
Anyway, the theme of my sleeve is steeped in education, photo history, and the theory of “Spirit Photography.” I am an artist who works in Photography, so the photo thing is easy enough. The SX-70 Polaroid camera on my shoulder was drawn after the actual camera that I have been using for the past ten years or so. The wings are symbolic of photo history’s past… analog photo dying out, the Polaroid film finally going out of production, and so on. I had originally toyed with the idea of using a winged box camera that was the logo of the Daily News, the first illustrated newspaper, but opted to make the logo more personal. This was to be a primary focus of the piece and was laid down first.
Next we worked on the “Ivory Tower.” I am a tenured professor of fine arts and the ivory tower has special significance for me. Yes, they say that educators hide away in their ivory towers doing research that means little in the real world and they lose touch with what is actually important, but I feel there is another side. As a professor who has gone through the arduous task of earning tenure, the tower motif may be seen as a type of prison. Not unlike Goldilocks, we are put inside a fortress and made to produce for the reigning king, head honcho, dean, or provost. We are imprisoned as much as we are free. Tenure adds stability to our lives by saying that unless we really, really fuck up, we still have a job… It also means that once you go through all that is required to obtain this golden prize, you never want to leave and start over somewhere else.
The tower is made to look like real ivory and is more organic than most depictions of the same entity. This one is created out of skulls, which historically have been seen as a symbol of intelligence and wisdom as the skull houses the brain.
The photographs and film that seem to fall from the heavens hold the key to the last photo historical referents. The film depicts images of a horse at full gallop. This infamous set of images resulted from a $25,000 bet between Eadweard Muybridge and the then governor of California, Leland Stanford as to whether or not all four hooves of a horse left the ground at the same time at any point during a gallop. Yes, they had been drinking… the bet took place in the bar. Regardless, Muybridge created the first set of “stop action” images of a high-speed subject. The result was proof that all four hooves left the ground. The important thing here is really at which point the hooves are in the air. Up until this time, all paintings of four legged animals running showed the animal in a “Superman” pose. As it turns out, no animal looks like that while running. This series changed the face of painting forever.
From the idea of horses to the “iron horse” of the motorcycle was not a huge leap at this point. Because I photograph bikes, it made some sense to follow this line of thinking into the next filmstrip.
The Polaroids tell the story of Spirit Photography. It has been believed by different cultures that to have a photograph made of you steals your soul. Other cultures believe that a camera can capture the image of a spirit. William Mumler was famous for his images of this nature, and even produced an image of Abraham Lincoln with his wife after his president’s untimely demise. In any case, two Polaroid images on the lower arm depict the spirits breaking free from the confines of the image and escaping into silver ether as silver is the photosensitive component of photographs… from ashes to ashes. The image that is falling from the Polaroid camera depicts the living and the dead, that which haunts us, and/or the physical self and the spiritual reality.
As I mentioned earlier, my daughter’s portraits are in one of the filmstrips. If you were to follow that piece of film up my inner arm, you would find how it makes the transformation from analog to digital as it breaks up into a pixilated image of a face. My wife has claimed that the image is of her, but the truth will never be known.
So what else is there to explain… hmmm, it is green because my favorite color is green… I don’t know, I think we have covered it in its entirety. So what comes next? Well, I have a plan for my chest piece and my left sleeve. Both will be from amazing artists, however I will not allow myself to take on another project with someone across the country. It is too difficult on the family and too costly. In any case, I have found a few folks within driving distance who are spectacular. I plan to start up again in a month or so. And after that? Well, after that I am going to take a break and hold off for a little while. I have made a plan with myself that I will do my back piece for my 50th birthday. I need a few years to research ideas and artists ya know…
Love, Respect, and Ride Safe,