June 25, 2006 — Toronto
I’d hereby like to inaugurate a new cultural trend: inkspotting. No, not dribbling little bits of ink across the page and counting them. Not blogging, or web logging, or any of that prose-related internet pus popping self-aggrandization. Tattoo spotting, a simple sport— a natural extension of the people watching we all do on a daily basis. An activity where whomever spots the best tattoo in any given public setting wins. (Wins what? Doesn’t matter. A really good ink sighting is its own reward.)
Inkspotting is already practiced intuitively by inkslingers and apprentices and students of body modification like myself. It shouldn’t be confused with trendspotting, although it might be useful in predicting the directions this growing field might take. Once you catch on, it’s easy. It’s also an excellent way to make new friends and/or piss off complete strangers. (Pointing at and/or posing with your finds is not recommended, however most wearers of public ink do enjoy a casual compliment now and then.) Are there any rules to inkspotting? No, not really; just guidelines. Inkspotting can be practiced in any public place, but works best when the weather is hot (fewer clothes required) and when a lot of people are about. You don’t have to be an expert in symbology to practice this sport— just very, very observant. Having a camera along also helps, because then you can prove the superiority of your sighting… Oh, and you can’t count your own ink.
Toronto’s annual Pride Parade is a great place for inkspotting. Toronto has a lot of great tattoo artists (lots of great artists, period!) and proudly marked locals. Year after year I’m impressed by what I see. The weather is invariably hot, there’s not a lot of clothing involved, and among the marked it’s often treated as an occasion for showing off new ink— although that’s not so healthy for the ink itself. (See Sun, risks of.) The parade itself is like a showcase of the tattooed; on the street, among the crowd, there’s so much ink that I lose track of what I’m looking at and start to skip over the little bits and pieces in favor of the big stuff— sleeves and backpieces. Most of the ink I spot is average, but some truly great and original pieces are manifest. Among the marchers I notice a number of colorful pieces. One lucky Toronto Roller Derby girl is sporting a gorgeous Cory Ferguson hand-poked pointillist sleeve. Another gent’s arm looks like a pastiche of autumn leaves, bright red and orange and green; up close it’s a rampant dragon surfing a lake of fire. Some of the groups in the parade could compete for best collective ink too. In my mind the Black Eagle guys and their bold tribal blackwork pose against the ROTC (Really Outrageous Twirling Corps) and their crazy Celtic backpieces— then the Roller Derby grrls come along and stampede the lot of them with glee.
The trend to ink
Inkspotting probably couldn’t have existed in a full-scale form twenty-six years ago, when Toronto’s Pride Parade started out. Sure, ink was around then, but the art of tattooing was still on the threshold of public acceptance, and showing one’s ink outside an appropriate scene or setting would have been sure to draw an extra helping of stigma. Since then, tattooing has kicked over: it’s now arguably mainstream. Everybody either wants to get a tattoo or be a tattoo artist, and there’s a couple articles a week about how mainstream it is. You can’t be taken seriously as a musician or pro skater or other icon of popular counterculture without some serious coverage. Tattoos are everywhere— in advertising, on renegade millionaires, on supermodels and even (in temporary form) on children. There are so many television shows pushing ink at the moment that it’s a good bet that the generation of kids currently in high school will rate “tattoo artist” high on their lists of career choices. This means that there’s no time like the present for getting some ink, displaying your existing ink, or developing an appreciation for it. We’re in the middle of an ink boom.
Hello Sunshine, Goodbye Ink
Inkspotting probably wouldn’t exist if most of the marked followed the advice of the artists who spent so much time adorning them and covered up their prime ink to keep it out of the sun. Why hide the good stuff? Well, for most people, a tattoo is a major investment. Good artists charge anywhere from a hundred fifty to three hundred dollars an hour, which means you can expect to spend between five and twenty thousand getting a really high quality sleeve or backpiece. What’s the point of putting out all that cash— and spending all those hours under the needle, in one degree of discomfort or another— if you’re just going to go out in the sun unprotected and melt it down into a bad case of fuzzy dermis? Even a tan will knock years off the life of your tattoo. A couple of sunburns can kill it.
How does that work? Once a tattoo is healed, the pigment sits in the same layer of dermis as melanin, the natural chemical which darkens in response to sunlight. Melanin provides the natural coloration for anything that walks with a dermis and quite a few things that don’t. Melanin might exist as a base pigment and protective defense against sun, but evidence suggests it that different types of it, upon exposure to UV rays, can actually damage healthy skin cells and tattoo pigments as well. Pheomelanin might be the worst, if you go by the incidence of skin cancer. (To make matters worse— and put it in a way that PC-retentives probably won’t comprehend— pretty much every tanned-and-tattooed combo I spot in the Pride Parade is a pheo.) Ironic that natural pigments would war on artificial ones, but it’s been documented: when subjected to UV burns, melanin produces active radicals that can damage DNA and eat away at ink. (Gives it this kinda spotty fading effect. See exhibit “A” over there.)
Ultraviolet rays also take a direct toll on certain pigments. Not all inks are created equal; some are more prone to fading than others. Part of this relates to the materials used; carbon ages, and even modern inks (with their melange of metal salts, minerals, industrial organics, plastics, and vegetable dyes) are susceptible to the ravages of time and ultraviolet radiation. Part of this relates to the color itself. White tattoo ink, for example, is impermanent by nature, guaranteed to fade in direct proportion with exposure to sun. Some sources suggest that all it takes to erase white ink is one sunburn. Two sunburns and your yellow ink will start to disappear; three and the greens and oranges start fading in. (The lighter the color, the quicker it goes. White ink wearers, please note: even without a sunburn, you’ll be lucky to get more than a year out of an all-white tattoo. Unless the artist tattoos some of the stencil in, it’ll fade until all that’s left to remind you is custom scar tissue.) Burn or tan a couple of years in a row and the piece you designed and spent a couple of big bills on will look like it’s submerged under a milky-white skim. The lines will lose their clarity; the design will lose its sharpness. Eventually you’ll have to describe it to the grandkids. (“Ar, yeah… That’s where the bungee goes into my navel. That’s a monkey spanking it on the end of the rope. That? Oh, that’s yer grandmother. Looks like her now, hey?”)
Some fading is natural: tattoos age just like we do, and settle deeper into the skin. Still, accelerated aging can be prevented. Protect your valuable ink with clothing whenever possible. Wear sunscreen with a very high SPF; the higher, the better, natch. Throw zinc on the expensive bits if you have to work out in the sun. Ask your tattoo artist how permanent the inks used are and how long you should be able to expect to wear a piece before retouching is required… And for god’s sake, understand: serious tattooing and serious tanning are mutually exclusive! (Take Mr. Leatherman 2006, for instance. God love ya, Bo Ladashevska, you incredible hunk of man, but why get major ink like that then bake all over it? Sure, tans and man-pageants go hand in hand, but damn… Oh my sweet leather lawdy, why?)
Here we come to another unpleasant truth: some designs might be better off faded. Not to be an ink snob here, but every time I see another set of butt antlers or thorny tribal armband, I think: why? Why bother? Obviously each tattoo has great significance to the wearer… or does it? The majority of the designs I spot at street level are generic, horribly derivative. For all their apparent variation, they still collectively represent the ink equivalent of a Cola-Cola logo. They look like they walked off the wall of some Yonge Street shop. Uh, wait… they probably did. Not much thought or effort has gone into them. Anyone who’s ever picked over the flash in their local shop will know the mass-market style I am talking about. I figure that this is because nowadays many people want ink just for the sake of having it. They care more about the look or cachet of a tattoo— and the marked status it confers— than the design itself. These ink novitiates walk into their local shop, check the wall flash, thumb through the books, and pick out a design that appeals to them. They walk out an hour or two later— and, if the ink reaches their brains— might go back a couple months later with a custom design in hand for a real commitment.
Flash designs are the average artist’s bread-and-butter: they won’t refuse to do them, but that doesn’t mean they like pumping out the same shit day after day. The creative aspect of the artist needs to assert itself sooner or later, and custom work is the best outlet there is. Still, the supposedly personal aspect of the tattoo becomes especially ironic when you consider that most storefront shops are using mass-produced flash. I’d estimate that ten to fifteen percent of the ink that walks out onto Toronto streets was originally penned by some dude in California pandering to wannabe bikers and surfers and the ink everyman.
What, then, makes a good tattoo? Perhaps we should discuss this in relation to inkspotting, because before pursuing ink in any real fashion, potential spotters (and wearers) need to decide what their criteria for good ink really is. Personally, I like to see properly executed and placed designs which show some degree of individualization, indicating their significance to the wearers’ life or personality… but, as with any aesthetic pursuit, the idea of what makes a good tattoo into art differs wildly. Those in the industry will tell you that there are a few key elements to any good piece of ink. I recommended these guidelines as a good place to start.
When evaluating ink, consider the following:
-Is the design flattering to the wearer and suited to their appearance and personality?
-Does it have proper placement, following the form of the body and musculature?
-Is it an appropriate size for the level of detail? (Avoid small detailed designs which “melt down” in a few seasons… Bigger is sometimes better, but size isn’t everything where tattoos are concerned either!)
-Was it executed properly? (I won’t get technical here. Anyone who’s ever seen a good tattoo done by an experienced professional and a kitchen tattoo done by an itinerant scratcher can instantly tell the difference. Novices and poorly tuned machines rip through your skin and leave a blurry, fading mess. The kind of thing you’d expect to see on merchant marines and WWII vets sixty years on.)
-Does it contain an element which makes it memorable to the viewer, be it humor or outrageousness?
-Is it original? (This cannot be stressed enough, since one of the most commonly cited reasons for which people choose to get marked is to make themselves unique.)
A final thought...
I’ve been watching the changing canvas of public skin for almost two decades. While I’m sorry to report the sad fact that most people have bad taste in ink, I’m glad to see the art of tattooing improving all the time. This makes picking out the single best piece I’ve ever seen a real effort. There are just too many talented artists and clever designs out there to make that call. (Stuck with this difficulty but still feeling competitive? See who can spot the most tattoos instead.)
Only the worst tattoo I’ve ever spotted sticks in memory. Picture a back-sized map of Cape Breton tattooed backwards on the wearer, shoulder-to-shoulder, in jagged black and blue outline. (Oh hell, don't picture it, I took care of that for you. Scroll down.) I was so shocked by the apparent scale of this mistake that I went up to the guy and got the story from him. Turns out he was being worked on by a kitchen tattooist who forgot that a drawing, once made into a stencil and applied, would appear as a reverse image. They were all drunk, so it kinda slipped by that the design wasn’t, well, representative of Cape Breton per se. But self-admiration saved this would-be artist from lynching. "It’s rightways when I look in the mirror," buddy said. "That’s what counts for me."
Jody's back - by Jay