Visual Arts

Ink Piece

Walk around on Mill Avenue, or any other disaffected-youth-magnet sort of locale, and you're bound to see a proliferation of bad tattoos. It's symptomatic of a generation of 20- to 30-year-olds who years ago grew an affection for tattoos as a mark of rebellion and not artistry; scratchwork is omnipresent these days, mostly because of poor decisions made by people (like me, don't ask . . .) in the ignorance of their youth. True, there's a plethora of good pieces by great tattoo artists out there, but the most noticeable to the non-tattooed public are the disasters -- they stand out like good car wrecks.

This is surely one of the reasons the art establishment at large is apathetic, if not disdainful, toward the artists who ram ink into skin day after day. Sure, there are a million bad paintings out there, too, and painters don't suffer for it, but their patrons don't wear the results to the mall. Consequently, the true luminaries of the art remain marginalized within the relatively minute culture that celebrates decoration of the skin.

A collection of 35 tattoo artists who currently work in Arizona or previously worked here have banded together to show their wares on media other than epidermis in a first-of-its-kind (in Arizona) exhibit to be held in downtown Phoenix. Organized by Dale Orman, owner of Crawling Squid tattoo in Phoenix, and Aaron Coleman, who works at Immaculate Tattoo in Mesa, the show is, for many of the artists, a first foray into displaying their inanimate works to the public. It's also something of a homecoming for many artists who left Phoenix for greener pastures in previous years -- needle maestros such as Lewis Hess, Kevin LeBlanc, Harlan Thompson, Dave Leamon and Jimmy Coffin, who are returning to participate in the event.

The show, titled "Tattoo A 2 Z," is a small rebellion against the art cognoscenti who don't recognize tattooists as legitimate artists. "As an art, tattooing is just as valid as the stuff in galleries, if not more," Coleman asserts. "Tattoo artists spend 10 times the amount of time drawing that a painter does. It's just as complicated an art form." While that statement may be true, one of the major differences is that almost all of a tattooist's pieces are commissioned by the client, according to what the client wants on his or her body. This makes the paintings, drawings, sculptures and other projects that artists do on their own time all the more dear to their hearts. With no customer input, the artists are free to do whatever the hell they want, a luxury taken for granted by artists of other media.

Additionally, tattoo artists ordinarily labor with the knowledge that they probably will never see their works of art again. "It's very similar to graffiti in that regard," says Coleman. "You put it on and it's gone. You're lucky if you get a photograph."

The "Tattoo A 2 Z" show will feature artists from about 25 tattoo shops across the Valley, with a wide variety of styles represented. True, you'll likely find a multitude of paintings that are tattoo-oriented; the stylistics are hard to escape for those who spend most of their hours drawing for that purpose. But there will also be plenty of works like those by Orman, whose otherworldly acrylic paintings transcend anything one could ink into the skin.

"This is a good opportunity for people that don't want to commit to a tattoo to be exposed to the work we do and the artists behind it," is how Coleman pimps the show. But more than that, it will be, as exhibiting artist Chris Rupp describes it, "a measure of where the Arizona tattoo scene is," and a satisfying stab at artistic legitimacy for the artists involved.

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Brendan Joel Kelley