Several people have asked me what it was I was planning to get on my arm.
I’ve been trying for an hour to find a decent example of what I have in mind and for some reason, the only things i can find are a few personal tattoo photos, which I don’t really want to link to (it’s sort of poor form, with other people’s tattoos, unless they’re posted someplace like bmezine). And anyway it’s still not right.
My right arm is blackwork; the upper arm has an older sort of abstract ‘tribal’ style tattoo, which is what we were all getting in the days when anything black and pointy could be called ‘tribal’. But since, I’ve gotten better educated on the artistic traditions behind tribal and prefer to stick closer to the original source, artistically. This means I try to work with people who understand polynesian tattooing, and who can work with specific island styles.
On my forearm, I wear one piece in a Maori style, from New Zealand, and then several smaller sections in a Marquesan style. The inside of my upper arm carries on the Maori look in a hammerhead design. YOU can see a cartoonist’s interpretation of that on the side bar of my blog, which is fairly accurate all things considered.
Because my arm is a patchwork of styles and different pieces, it looks unfinished to me. So I can either take the remaining space and locate individual smaller designs in open space, or I can unify the whole with ‘filler’ designs. IN Japan they do this with wind bars, waves, or other background, filling space between major design elements. In western tattooing, one might fill in with stars or some such military motif, given most classic american tattooing was inspired by navel aesthetics.
Polynesians, at least from some places like the Marquesas where the body was often completely covered, did something similar by inter-connecting major pieces with seemingly random (though in fact composed of smaller, repeating design elements) designs. NOt all polynesian styles do this; some favor larger single pieces or single designs framed by open space. BUt one can find examples from many islands of what I mean, some as simple as plan black sections, others small, tapa-cloth-like patterns.
Since I’m tying together several different styles, the challenge is to work with all of them, or rather, not to distract or clash with any.
The idea I have is to place a single major design element – in this case a tahitian-style tiki – in the largest open space on the inside of my arm. I”m planning to plce it at an odd angle to avoid having to line up with existing designs, most of which are either in line with, or parallel to, my arm. Around it will be some related design elements intended to both fill the space, and be artistically interesting on their own, without crowding too much into the space.
This is somewhat challenging for several reasons. First, because so much of my arm is geometric, it’s hard to figure out what to line specific elements up with, in anything that needs to be symmetric (like, for example, a face). Second, it’s challenging to work in and around other artist’s work and produce a harmonious whole. A good tattoo artist can do this, if they and the wearer want (though in truth many customers don’t care about harmony, or even intentionally choose against it).
The other thing that makes this hard is that one really can’t do design like this on paper. It’s got to be felt and then composed in situ, what’s often called freehanding the design (though this is usually a miss-use; freehand means the artist improvises with the needle, rather than with pen on skin, but it’s a fine distinction).
Some very good artists can’t design on skin, for whatever reason. Training, style, habit, or simple comfort with improvisation, can limit an artist’s ability to freehand designs. And one of the key rules with tattoo is, do what your artist does best, because that’s how you get inspired work.
So I had to find an artist who understood the medium and tradition, and who is comfortable drawing things on rather than pre-rendering a drawing.
So when people ask me what I’m getting, the answer is, I don’t really know.
What I do know is who’s doing it. Sixteen months ago I dropped in at Humble Beginnings Tattoo in San Jose, Ca to talk to the owner, Orly. The place is a classic street tattoo shop; it’s not the one you send first-timers to when they need a calm, sweet, hand-holding experience. It’s not a salon; it’s the kind of place where they answer the phone tattoshop in a tone of voice that says they they’ll hang up on you if you annoy them. It’s the kind of place you feel awkward walking into if you don’t look like like part of the scene.
On the other hand, for the year or so before that, I’d been asking people polynisians all over the bay area, who did your ink and getting the same answer; Orly at HB. I’d looked at his work at a convention, and talked to one of his shop-mates, and I was pretty sure this was the place and Orly was the guy.
And of course, I am a tattoo scene guy; I’m sleeved, I have tattoos on my hands, and so many ear piercings I have to count to answer how many (six, at this point). I have work by big names in the industry, like Eddy Deutsch, Freddy Corbin, Mike Malone, and I know Ed Hardy enough to drop his name casually. So shops like that, other than in hollywood where they first check your celeb cred and then your tattoo cred, don’t look at me as if I was barely trnslucent the way they do with most walk-ins.
When I started talking to Orly sixteen months ago and explaining what I wanted, he got it. He said ‘how about we just draw that on when you come in, that would work better’, and I know I had the guy I wanted to work with.
That was just before christmas, and I’d planned to call him back and make an appointment for sometime in my holiday break. I didn’t, of course, for various reasons like being incredibly busy, deaths in the family, and, you know, the holidays. And Orly, being a tattoo artist, can be a little hard to reach sometimes. So after a month or so of trying, I sort of mentally gave up, putting it off for later.
Cut to last week. I’ve had this on the back-burners of my mind for months, but with the small lull my team’s in right now between projects, I’ve had time to look at things that want doing. Things like my taxes, home maintenance, and of course personal-gratification items like motorcycles and tattoos.
I started talking to a friend who was just going for a tattoo, and i looked at the clock and thought, hey, I think HB is open and I think Orly works mondays, I should call.
I was lucky enough to reach Orly on the first try, which means we’re back to the same plan. I’m going to go in one day soon, and he’ll just start drawing on my arm and we’ll see what happens. It’ll either work like I want or it won’t, or we’ll come up with an even better idea I hadn’t even thought of that’ll beat the hell out of anything I could imagine; because that’s how it works sometimes when you pick the right artist and let them run. Sometimes you get inspired work like my feet, or like my left arm, when you just say, here’s my concept, go. That requires both the right artist, and the right relationship; there’s a vast trust placed in someone when they make permanent marks in your skin. It’s not the right relationship for every tattoo, for every customer, but almost universally, the best, most inspired tattoos I’ve ever seen have been pure creation by the artist, not pre-planned by the customer.
I never found the image that I have in my mind for the tiki that may anchor this tattoo, so I can’t demonstrate it. But nevermind; it might not materialize in the final tattoo, or might morph into something very different than where we start. We’ll see.