Introduction to Tomas Tomas’s book “Explorations”
“As Ancient as Time, as Modern as Tomorrow”
Milton Zeis - tattoo artist and supplier, 1920’s
Tomas’s tattooing has to be some of the most interesting and innovative being done today, somehow it embodies it’s purest potential like nothing else. Almost like music, this is a tattooing that flows and ebbs endlessly over the body - leg, armpit, finger, breast, throat. The hollow in the small of the back gently opening out onto the smooth curve of the buttocks; temple, groin, knee; patterns that are at home anywhere. These geometries seem to outstrip the body they live on, growing endlessly, twisting out into the world in endless arcs and arabesques, colliding and reforming over limbs, necks and hands. They work so well because they are the patterns we all see when we close our eyes, when we stare too long in any direction, when we dose ourselves with psychedelics. They are also the patterns that nature provides - the camouflage on a fish or a tiger, the striations in rocks and crystals, what we see through a telescope or a microscope. They mimic nature without in anyway representing it or copying, but in the blink of an eye could they not be like flocks of birds swirling in the sky? Like spider webs in the morning light, like the sound of the trees rustling in the forest? They surround us constantly if only we care to look, and so, as in all the best art, Tomas isn’t really creating anything new, but bringing out and drawing our attention to what is already there.
Techno-primitive; this work spans the 10’s of thousands of years from when we slept in caves, squatted by fires and sought the divine in the intestines of animals, to a possible future in the stars. Our bodies re-engineered, our minds cyphers preserved in crystal banks, our future on a planet yet to be discovered; this work bridges that gap and brings the two somehow closer together. Tattooing has always involved blood and pain, it’s essential nature remains the same now as then; the impulse remains the same. Now, sitting in offices, on airplanes, clothed in synthetic fabrics, surrounded by machine made products and spending our time gazing into a screen isn’t tattooing all the more necessary? This work bridges that gap. Many of these patterns have come from within that screen, yet they are imprinted on the bodies that wear them in much the same way as it’s always been done; a needle, some ink and a willing body/mind.
Although Tomas’s references are almost entirely from without what we think of as traditional tattooing, this is without doubt “proper” tattooing. There is much being done today that draws references from many and varied sources, but some of it doesn’t really ring true. This does, aesthetically it’s all about the body - things fit in the way that the tattoos from Japan or the Pacific islands do, but without in any way copying them. Tomas has learnt his lessons well, and taken his work in an entirely new direction. He is intensely respectful of what has gone before and manages to pay homage to those traditions, whilst letting the work absolutely stand on it’s own. Yet whilst radical and innovative it manages to be unobtrusive and natural. Like a minimalist music that flows endlessly, it doesn’t have to shout out its presence, it brings you in, rewarding our attention rather than demanding it. So gaze at this collection of work and be amazed, be inspired; imagine yourself, one foot in the past, one in the future, spanning the history and possibilities of this, our chosen and much loved art – Tattoo.
From my piece in the Ron Athey book “Pleading in the Blood”
I remember the first time I saw Ron in the flesh so clearly (I’d seen him in print a number of times before). I was fresh off the plane from England on my first U.S. trip in around 1990. I was in L.A. to meet and get tattooed by my Tribal tattoo hero Leo Zuluetta and generally suck up the scene that I had seen and read about in London. The first night I was there I went to the famed Club Fuck, and there was Ron, naked apart from knee high boots, tight jocks, and afro wig. Tattooed up of course. What a combination! Tattoos and drag, sweaty and hard, dancing his ass off.
I’d been tattooing only a short while, but getting tattooed and thinking about it quite a few years longer. I’d been around in some of the 80’s clubs in London, Kinky Gerlinky and the like. I’d done my time in Torture Garden, I’d performed naked rolling in paint and blood for my artschool degree show, so I wasn’t totally naïve, I was just searching for the right people. I’d seen Ron and his gang in the likes of TattooTime magazine (seminal tattoo magazine published by Ed Hardy) and the book Modern Primitives, but here, right in front of me was the perfect representation of what I’d been looking for. An alternative way to be tattooed - not piece by piece, but as a whole, not a man with some tattoos, but a tattooed man. Ron particularly encapsulated that L.A. scene, he was, and remains, the perfect ideal of that time and place. A time when tattooing was still dangerous, when it was for criminals or outlaws; either literally on the run from the law, or placing oneself quite deliberately and permanently outside what was acceptable in polite society. For artists like ourselves it was the ultimate challenge,
I arrived, fresh, young and keen on the LA scene, and Ron and his compatriots were ripe for fresh influences and visions themselves. An added complication was Ron’s H.I.V. status, some of the more established L.A. tattooers were scared and unwilling to penetrate his tainted flesh. My previous flirtations in the messier side of performance art, coupled with my brief stint as a medical illustrator made this an irrelevance to me (I knew the score and Hep has been around forever and is far more contagious). Those were the days when H.I.V. status pretty much amounted to a death sentence, certainly in the popular imagination anyway. We had both watched friends die, those with “aids” and those willing to hang with such people were considered half dead already, so it was an environment when anything was possible and permitted, for what had one to loose? On the run myself from my British middle class background, and a London that bored me, I was hooked. As fellow artists both looking for fresh new territories we hit it off immediately, sealing the pact with an impressively large Borneo style throat piece. Followed up with my first major backpiece on his then lover’s (“Baby” Brain, R.I.P.) back, my entre into the L.A. tattoo scene of the time was assured.
Ron’s tattooing totally changed the ballposts. His arms by Leo Zuluetta are the perfect collaboration that good tattooing has to be. The ability of the artist to make the work, coupled with the vision of the wearer to push the boundaries of what has been seen before. It’s still rarely achieved, and it takes a rare combination to make it happen. It’s hard now to truly appreciate how groundbreaking Ron’s tattooing was at the time. The tribal tattooing being pioneered at the time was the “punk rock” of tattooing, a reaction to the overblown super detailed and slick, fantasy style tattooing that was prevalent at the time (there are those who think the time is right for that again! But that’s another story) Tribal work seems truer to the idea of what a tattoo should be, true to the medium, not trying to be something else. It’s raw, dramatic and visceral; it looks like what it is, like the skin has been punctured, like it HURTS, unlike some of the super slick work being done both then and now, which may as well not be a tattoo, but a computer graphic. Stripped of it’s essential power, it’s not a tattoo anymore, but a “skin illustration”.
Ron was willing, and has been throughout his career to really put himself out there in a way that remains really quite unusual. I would say that Ron undoubtedly used tattooing as part of his “work” - he was well aware of the effect it had on the people around him, and as a punk rock performance artist, living in the underbelly of the L.A. scene at the time tattooing was definitely one of the tools available. But looking at Ron, at his work, the stark drama of it, he definitely took it one stage further than just “getting a tattoo” He’s a good looking boy, and well aware of it, he has an imposing physical presence is very charismatic and powerful, he’s definitely the sort of man who turns heads, and probably did so from a young age. The decision to get heavily tattooed, including on the face (the first tattoo Bob Roberts did when he first moved back to L.A. from New York) took all that a step further. He was, and is, and pioneer in many ways, he has caused, and delighted in controversy. His tattooing has definitely played a part in that. The mainstream (and tattooing is now 100% a part of that) comes from the underground, in almost every field that’s the route, Art, Fashion, Music, even sport, environmental concerns. Ron getting the work he did, at the time he did, influenced the visual culture of the time, and that spread.
All art tries to move forward and better itself, as do we as humans, it’s a natural instinct. The question is how do we do that? As humans we try to be happy, or rich and famous, or wise. And we, as artists, struggle to perfect our work, to move forward, to find its essence, its purest form. For Ron his body and how it looks has played a big part in all of that, how he appears, his physical presence, the effect he has on the people around him is central. Whether we like it or not the way we look influences everything around us, it’s always been that way, it’s the human way, and Ron has taken that, worked with it and pushed it down our throats in a dramatic and very beautiful way. Ron’s tattoos are there on display all the time, so he is “working” as he walks down the street, making people think, challenging their expectations, and as the man that did some of his more visible tattooing I’m proud to be a part of that.
Ron, I salute you.
Raw Power - first published in “Sang Bleu”
Tattooing has gone in so many directions over the years; it’s hard to know where to begin. Where did it all start? What is the essential power of tattoo? So let’s get back to basics; tattooing is the breaking of the skin and the introduction of pigment so that it permanently marks it. That’s pretty potent stuff. The permanent altering of the body, rearranging its surface to suit the wearer’s personal inclinations, or the cultural context in which that particular body finds itself. It’s really quite unique in the spectrum of human experience, there’s nothing quite like it, so no wonder it’s so popular! It feels like we’re so overloaded with tattooing, and tattoo imagery these days that it’s easy to loose respect for it. It’s become so common it’s almost normal, it has been mainstreamed to a degree that is probably hard for those in their 20’s to fully realize. Tattooing now is literally everywhere. It’s weird! But at root it still holds its incredible power over us; just what is it that makes tattooing so compelling? We are born blank, a tabula rasa, empty, open, waiting for meaning and decoration. How amazing that we have this ability to change ourselves. Tattooing is something that has pretty much always been with us, changing forms, styles and meanings in different times, but always there as part of the human experience, it’s like a chameleon, changing its colours and forms over the years, re-arranging itself to suit time and circumstance. Like an actor with many faces it changes its function and values according to who is using it, depending on the context. It’s endlessly versatile, like a lover who can change her costume to suit the moment, tattooing has always been with us, and certainly always will, whether embraced or prohibited, because we have bodies, with minds and hands, and ink.
This issue is supposed to have a bit of a slant towards tribal tattooing, my feeling has been that over the last few years tribal work has been somewhat overlooked in the mad scramble for the super slick special effect, but for me tribal is where it’s at because it’s where the essential power of tattooing is at it’s rawest and most basic. There is less distraction by the super smooth technical side of the art where the viewer is overwhelmed by special effects, and we can come to a closer appreciation of what tattooing actually is. Ink in skin; in a Samoan Pe’a, or a Thai Buddhist tattoo you can actually see the individual prick marks, you really get a sense of how the ink has been forced into the flesh. Tattooing is by its very nature violent. It hurts, it’s messy, and your mother doesn’t like it (or at least she didn’t; now she probably has one!) Christianity and Islam have both banned it, so it’s pretty much ingrained in our consciousness that it’s bad. Hence of course it’s current popularity, because we all want to be bad now don’t we? Bad is the new good, look at Iggy in those awful insurance adverts. The good wants to suck up the bad and make it good, or make it seem bad by association. But because we have the idea that marking the body permanently is basically “wrong” we have to try and atone for its dark associations by making it beautiful, or slick. All that dark, gothic tattooing done by some artists HAS to be perfectly rendered, it has to be beautifully done, otherwise it’s just too much, too shocking, way too strong. The mallet of boars tusk, the shark tooth needle, the thorn bound to a stick, the thread of soot coved sinew drug though the skin, the stick bound with up to 48 needles; the pigment made from the scrapings inside a cooking pot, from mixing soot or boot polish with urine, from burning whale fat, these are some of the ways that tattoos used to be done. There is something so beautiful about a hand done Pe’a, or an old school Japanese back-piece, the fact that it’s a TATTOO , it’s clearly been punctured into the skin, its roughness is what makes it so beautiful.
Tribal work, and other traditional styles, seem truer to the idea of what a tattoo should be, true to the medium, not trying to be something else. I like my tattoos to look like a tattoo, some of the super slick work seen today may as well not be a tattoo, but a computer graphic–somehow it’s been stripped of it’s essential power, it’s not a tattoo anymore, but a “skin illustration”. I always loved the Bob Roberts line “that’s not tattooing, that’s taxidermy”, tattooing is more than JUST the introduction of pigment into the skin, some styles of work embody the idea better than others; the medium is inherent in the form.
Punk rock! We all love it; it’s almost the foundation of the culture that modern tattooing comes from. Punk reacted against what it saw as the over produced and slick early 70’s rock that preceded it, back to basics music, the idea that anyone could do it, the ideas and the raw power were what was important, not slick musicianship or production values. And here we are come full circle, with too much tattooing becoming more and more like overblown visual gloss, empty of real meaning or relevance, mere escapism. Plato says that everything is always seeking to perfect itself, to somehow find its perfect form. All art tries to move forward and better itself, as do we as humans, it’s a natural instinct. The question is how do we do that? As humans we try to be happy, or rich and famous, or wise. And we, as artists, struggle to perfect our work, to move forward, to find its essence, its purest form. Too much tattooing seems to do that by trying to be being technically perfect; clean lines, perfect colour, soft shading, unusual light effects. It feels like the only criteria on which people judge a tattoo is how well it’s done. Too much peering close up to inspect the smooth quality of the work, not enough standing back and feeling the force. Somehow the slicker the tattoo is the further removed it feels from its essential power–the ink and the blood, the raw physicality of cutting the body and introducing the pigment. Sometimes it feels like the only criteria on which a tattoo is judged is its technical mastery, which seems a shame since there are so many other ways to look at it. Is this REALLY what tattooing is all about, or is it just a distraction, a vanity? For me the more rough and ready styles–tribal work, prison tattooing, old school Japanese, come much closer to what tattooing actually IS. They embody its essence more clearly; they are truer, more real. Super clean tattooing seems too sanitized, like it’s trying to deny it’s self, trying to over prettify itself. I think the current popularity of palm of hand tattooing is attempting to address this, it’s bringing it back to basics, it clearly hurts a lot and it’s impossible to get a super slick result. It seems incredibly hardcore to the uninitiated, it’s a way of taking it away from the MTV crowd, it’s kind of like neck tattooing was 20yrs ago, something the mainstreamers wouldn’t dare get. The pain is cathartic; it makes you feel alive, real. Somehow the overblown slickness of some modern tattooing is attempting to deny its visceral reality, to over sanitize it. It’s always been a problem in art of how far you can take it, and in tattooing, like much other art it’s possible to take it all the way. That’s almost the problem, if it can be taken all the way, then where to go with it next? In fine arts the blank canvas, or throwing paint randomly at the canvas, John Cage and his 3 minutes silence, the Viennese actionist Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s rumoured suicide in the name of art, or our own Lucky Rich’s tattooing his whole body black. Where to go? How to take it further? What is it in essence?
For me a real tattoo has a gutsy raw quality; it’s primal, basic, and probably a bit rough. Your mother (whose tattoo, if she has one, is all a bit clean and small and well done) still won’t like it, because it’s too big, too prominent, too real. It looks like what it is: punctured skin with ink rubbed in; it looks like it hurt, it looks like you earned it. It really IS a tattoo.
Sticking it to the Man - from “Handpoke Tattoo”, edited by Charles Boday
In common with plenty of my generation, my first encounter with tattooing was the self-administered handpoke. Luckily my first attempts in the back row of the school room mostly dropped out, but I was hooked. A decade or so later, after I’d received my first few machine tattoos, and when I was toying with the idea that this was something I could DO, I again turned to the self-made handpoked tattoo, this time with considerably more success. Using a tight bunch of sewing needles tied to a chopstick, I made a fairly large spiral tattoo on my calf. I’m still very proud of it. My first encounters with tattooing in the 70’s, which included being fascinated with the crude homemade tattoos on the arms of the fairground workers who came to our local town, and reading what is still one of my favorite books, Papillon, which has numerous tattooing references, primed me to admire these relatively crude, handmade marks.
Tattooing has gone broadly in two directions over the last couple of decades, since it has become more mainstream and commercial. On the one hand, it has become increasingly technically sophisticated: color realism, fancy shading techniques, and the use of computers in the design process. The other direction is towards what some have termed “low fi”, and in this it mirrors other contemporary art forms, where people are becoming increasingly bored with an over-reliance on technical wizardry. The handpoke tattoo embodies that perfectly; it’s a natural reaction to the other polarity: the slick and overblown. Call it punk rock if you like, it’s tattooing stripped of the superfluous. No electricity, no machine, no autoclave (you can throw the needles away), no color (generally). If you tattoo yourself - no gloves, no customer, no money. You could make your own ink (piss and burnt newspaper) and use any sharp implement. It’s stripped back to the basics, it’s the same as it was practiced thousands of years ago, and it can make you feel really connected to all of that history. All it retains is pain and permanence, the two fundamentals of the art.
To me, part of the beauty of handpoked tattoos is that in some sense you are “sticking it to the man” as well as in your/her/his leg/arm/head. As tattooing is being appropriated by the mainstream and becoming increasingly commercialized, to many it is no longer the mark of the outsider or rebel, but the unthinking mark of the sheep. Outside commercial interests are continually making inroads into “our” world. The endless process of taming, of dumbing down, of corporate thinking, seem to be taking over, and the handpoked tattoo is one little way of taking that back. It’s a way for us to re-own tattooing, for no matter that the handpoked tattoo can in fact be delicate and less painful, it has a rawness and immediacy that is compelling.
If tattooing has somewhat lost its edge, maybe these handpoke tattooers represent some kind of an alternative path, and if it all “goes down”, then these guys have the skills and techniques to keep on working!
My Introduction to “The Woodcut Portraits”
I have been tattooing for around 23 years, got my first tattoo around a decade before that, and had been thinking about it since my early teens, so tattooing has played an enormous role in most of my life, it’s shaped me and given me so much, and I still love it with a passion.
I wanted to do something different As an artist who has been involved with tattooing for many years, and although I still feel very much that I am a “tattoo artist” I have always enjoyed working outside that medium, whilst also attempting to keep some loyalty to it. Printmaking has many parallels with tattooing, some most definite, some much more tenuous, and this project has, in my mind at least, tied the two together. Certainly tattooing is well connected to the Japanese print, indeed most of the imagery still being used today is directly derived from the edo period woodblock, which developed to it’s peak around 1880. Most Europeans in the 18th and 19th centurys would have had their first exposure to tattooing viewing prints of tattooed natives drawn by the artists on board Cooks voyages of discovery. The whole idea of the print is that it is a multiple, and a way of disseminating ideas and imagery to a wide audience, here we have 2 examples of tattoo imagery being seen in print form, and then copied as tattooing.
The black and white woodcut deals strictly in 2 tones. Black or white, it’s a binary code, an on/off switch. There are no mid-tones, no shading; it’s a mark, or no mark. One of the main ideas in this project is to see how a series of basically abstract marks can build up a representation of reality. We know that our brains ‘make’ reality, our nervous systems collect the information around us and turn that into a concrete world, the world that we perceive. We also know that when it come to faces, we are programmed even more strongly to interpret whatever stumulai is there into a face, so a fundamental idea in this project was to see how far I could push it and still have it recognizable as a face. Will a series of lines, of squares, of much looser almost random marks, work?
These are “my” people. Some I have known for decades, some just a few years; some very well, having worked alongside them for a long time, some much more casually; but all are people I have felt some point of real contact with, some sense of brotherhood in that call to arms that has affected us so much. The call to get heavily tattooed, and for the majority in this book, become tattooers ourselves. Of course this is not an attempt at a complete record of such people in my life, many other factors come into play, but it is in part a document of some of the people surrounding me. do they photograph well? Being a big one. They do have to look good.
The black and white woodcut deals strictly in 2 tones. Black or white, it’s a binary code, an on/off switch. There are no tones, no shading; it’s a mark, or no mark. One of the main ideas in this project is to see how a series of basically abstract marks can build up a representation of reality. We know that our brains ‘make’ reality, our nervous systems collect the information around us and turn that into a concrete world, the world that we live in. We also know that when it come to faces, we are programmed even more strongly to interpret whatever stimuli is there into a face, so a fundamental idea in this project was to see how far I could push it and still have it recognizable as a face. Will a series of lines, of squares, of much looser almost random marks, work?
This project works on two primary levels, On the one hand it is a social document of some of the people who make up my world…
On the other it is an exploration of a medium. It is a record of a journey, my journey of learning how to make a woodcut. They are in the order that I did them. So Tomas was the first woodcut that I did. And I loved it, it was a complete experiment, and it worked, and I knew I was onto something. I tried to make them all an experiment, I love that feel of excitement that comes with not really knowing how things are going to turn out, and the relief print gives you that every time, until you ink and print you are never really sure how things will look. As I progressed in the series I tried to push myself every time, not to just repeat a winning formula, and that resulted in some great images. Not every time of course, a few I didn’t like and abandoned, a few I liked enough, but knew that a re-cut would get an even better result, but the vast majority I kept as they were, mistakes, blemishes and bits I plain didn’t like that much (still don’t) intact.
A fundamental idea in many artforms is the idea of the mistake, the random element, the chance event. There are plenty of artists who work primarily with this idea, of applying a system and seeing how it turns out. This is not something that generally works in tattooing, and is something I wanted to explore a little bit more, working with chance, having an idea, working it through, and only seeing if it has worked when the final print is done and it’s too late to change it. The woodcut print is very final, it is not a medium that allows any over working, once the plate is made that’s basically it. You can cut a little more away, but you can’t put back, and if you endlessly cut away, you end up with nothing.