Even as tattooing grows more commonplace, the artwork really only serves as a proxy for the time spent designing, drawing, redrawing, tattooing and healing. That is not to say its value and representation is diminished in any regard. Rather, I think we sometimes forget to acknowledge the origin of ours—and others’—carnal illustrations.
Josh Russell, on the other hand, knows exactly from where his pieces generate. “I have 16 tattoos, all of which differ greatly in size, design, influence and inspiration,” he says. “Some are art-inspired, like the M.C. Escher tessellation half-sleeve. Some are humor-inspired, like the teddy bear holding a machete, the no smoking sign or the tear drops on my fingers. In almost all cases, though, my pieces have started with a simple idea, and then grow and change as I think about it more and collaborate with my tattoo artist.”
The relationship with the tattoo artist is as important as the person’s work. Together, they can hash out the meaning, the process and the right measures to take in creating a work of skin art. “Take for example, my back piece,” Russell explains. “I knew I wanted wings but not a full back of wings. Then the tree made of hands influenced by art drawn by an old friend of mine came into play. [After that,] it was a matter of batting a bunch of different ideas around with Jonathan, my artist at Marks of Distinction, until we had a general grasp on the entire piece.”
Currently, there seems to be a growing, unwritten consensus that the work with which we choose to decorate our skin requires an occasion or some deep-seated history. Reason or not, sometimes there is just an unabashed desire to be tattooed.
“I know that some people [have an] emotional connection to a particular tattoo, or a certain masochism in which the actual process of getting tattooed is a stimulating and pleasurable experience,” Russell explains. “I do it for neither of the above. The process of getting tattooed is painful, and hours of sitting in a chair are extremely taxing. For me, the pleasure comes from being able to design my own body—to become inspired by something small, turn it into something large and exciting, and permanently adorn my body with it.”
Maybe there is still an underlying rationale for so diligently and painstakingly considering every line, every color, every shadow of tattoos that don’t have, in Russell’s words, a “deep emotionally rooted reason.” Perhaps the display of the work itself—the art being the impetus for conversation and awareness—is reason enough.
“I hope that people see [my tattoos] and it gives them at least a nudge in the direction to get the exact tattoo they want, where they want it, and not worry about having to hide it, explain it, or have any repercussions from doing exactly what they wanted to do.”
For Russell and others like him, who one day desires to be tattooed from head to toe, the process and pride combined are what make the experience whole. Even for those who have just one or a select few pieces remember that it’s not simply the display of artwork, it is the visual representation of a cultivated and nurtured relationship between tattooer and client.