Monday, November 12, 2007

Skin City: The Art of the Tattoo from October 12- December 31, 2007

By Kate Sable

I found myself pleasantly surprised upon entering The Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida this weekend. I have always been drawn towards work that finds its roots in the ‘arts of the street.’ The show Skin City: The Art of the Tattoo showcases quite a few artists who draw inspiration from the age-old tradition of the tattoo. This exhibition draws light on this form of art that has been long considered taboo, underground to the normative crowd. Decoration of the body exists in our earliest recollections of human history. However, individuals who use body art as a means of self-expression have always been of a social domain in which one is either a member, or simply an outsider. Throughout the show, I saw very specific and extremely powerful cultural symbols geared directly toward a language used in the world of tattoo art. I felt comfortable viewing this specific type of imagery, maybe because I have seen it so often in the alluring form of tattoo; however, the disconnect was there, I definitely do not have the same awareness and appreciation many of these artists do toward this specific language. Self-expression, personal experiences, social values, and myth are all references for the art pieces in the show and the work effectively challenges serious ideas about identity, beauty and of course, the body.

I was immediately drawn to the photographs by artist John Wyatt. The black and white photographs seemed so generous, making each individual portrayed readily available to me. Most of the figures were heavily tattooed artists and patrons who share this common love for the art of the tattoo. While first viewing the photographs, I found myself constructing stories and ideas about these beautiful decorations and their relationship to the person marked, making my own secret assumptions about why they have each specific design or ornamentation upon their bodies. I was feeling quite voyeuristic, attributing each image on their body to some powerful moment, person, or event in the lives of the portrayed, this person I didn’t know at all. After having played these games in my head, I noticed many of the pictures had specific narrative directly beside the image. To my surprise, Wyatt included very personal dialogue alongside the images to let the viewer in on harder evidence of the diverse backgrounds and lifestyles of the figures in the photographs. The photographs really did expose a part of the people, much like the marks on their body can do to an outsider studying the clues of personal expression inked into their skin. I’m not sure if the dialogue available was necessary for me to be drawn into the photographs, but after already having spent so much time looking at the work, I found myself easily and happily passing another 40 minutes reading each description, providing some satisfaction to a risen curiosity.

The show also included drawings, prints, assemblages and sculpture work by Nick Bubash, who has been working as a tattoo artist since 1972. The collages and assemblages were particularly interesting to view. These pieces were very strong compositionally with fabulous color use; a great dialogue is created between each piece. The work is visually complex, I found that I really enjoyed the use of figures, pop culture, and mechanics. He creates work that seems rather specific, as if each image has a very particular function, but upon further inspection I gathered that each created figure or space was completely nonsensical. The images chosen are, as I mentioned before, images in which I feel very comfortable viewing, because I felt as if I had seen them many times before, on the body. Only with this work they have been taken out of context, off the body and onto a formally strong and equally aesthetically pleasing artwork. The paper pieces dance off the page and show a very interesting crisscross of culture. I was also interested in how nicely his artistic sensibilities transferred into book form, exhibited by his book art pieces in cases on the floor of the gallery. Bubash completely rules when it comes to owning decorative and ornate design. I wanted so much to run my hands across the papers and stitched book pieces.

The types of imagery that fill this gallery space are cultural images powerful enough for individuals to choose their permanent placement upon their bodies. By transferring these same images into a gallery space, this show harnesses some of that energy and enthusiasm and finds much success.

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