From family connections to first loves and cultural differences, tattoos offer a unique insight into a person’s interests and personality in a way that no other art form can. And it IS an art form, as the ‘Talking Tatts‘ exhibition at the MAC last week clearly demonstrated. Created by photographer Carrie Davenport and musician Paul Kane, ‘Talking Tatts’ sought to shed some light on the ink worn by various members of the local music industry, asking the question, ‘why did you get your tattoo?’. The resulting exhibition, combining both photographic and audio-visual aspects, was visually arresting, with probing and often quite intimate stories from each subject.
Opening night proved to be a busy one, with dozens of people crowding into the gallery in the MAC to gaze upon Davenport’s photos and watch the accompanying video, which consisted of footage of each tattoo along with a voiceover from the subjects explaining the story behind their art. Their faces were cleverly omitted to allow the viewer to really focus on the artwork and the stories.
Once that was done, Davenport’s stunning photographs were seen in an entirely new light – knowing the stories behind the tattoos really did make a difference. The photos perfectly encapsulated the personality of each of the subjects, a skill that lies squarely in Davenport’s insightful and empathetic eye.
The subjects and their stories ran the gamut of both the music business and human experience. From artist Laura Totten’s heartwarming tale of discovering not only the existence of a long lost brother, but also the fact that he was a tattoo artist (he designed and inked her ballsy yet feminine Japanese piece) to tour manager Graham Smith’s small but clearly precious tattoo devoted to the first album he truly loved, and DJ/tech crew Emma-Rose McGrady’s girly but decidedly un-saccharine piece combing musical instruments and headphones, the stories were often poignant, at times funny and always uniquely personal. Cohost Paul Kane was even included, with his terrifically original and warm tribute tattoo to his first ever amp.
The two cohosts spoke to the gathered crowd to welcome everyone and explain the exhibition with its twin faceted approach of audio-visual and photography elements. Kane stated that the reason why they decided to combine both music and tattoos was because “music brings people together and the tattooed community brings people together too”, before going on to reveal that the subjects on show were only a small sample of the total number they had interviewed – a hint at another, more expansive show, perhaps? Praising tattoo artist’s ability to “interpret our dreams”, he and Davenport explained that the reason the subjects got their tattoos was the most important element of the exhibition, rather than who did it or what the quality of the artwork was.
As Davenport noted, tattoos are “a reflection of what’s inside” – a concept clearly demonstrated in this most unique and fascinating exhibition.
TATTOOED SUBJECTS AND THEIR ARTISTS
1. Brian Young (musician), artist: Skull, Skinworks
2. Laura Totten (musician), artist: George Totten
3. Paul Kane (musician), artist: Helen McDonnell, Skullduggery
4. Graham Smith (tour manager), artist: Krush, Dark Angel
5. Dean Stevens (musician), artist: Shane Sunday, Alternative Ink
6. Danny Morton (musician), artist: Chris Crooks, White Dragon Tattoo
7. Emma-Rose McGrady (DJ/tech crew), artist: Joe Mullan, Joker Tattoo
8. Ryan Fitzsimmons (DJ/promoter), artist: Helen McDonnell, Skullduggery
9. Nathan Connolly (musician), artist: Angelique Houtkamp
Chordblossom had the chance to chat to both of the exhibition’s creators on opening night. Here’s what they had to say:
► What was the inspiration behind the exhibition?
Paul: well I’m a musician, I’m also a facilitator for the Oh Yeah Music Centre. I also have six tatts, and they all mean something to me. Working in the music industry I saw all of these musicians coming through, all with their own tattoos. And it was sheer curiosity, I thought “ I wonder what the stories are behind them?” It’s not really ‘the done thing’ to walk up to a stranger and say “show us what your tattoo is” so I thought, wouldn’t it be fabulous if we got a selection of musicians and music industry people, and just got the story behind what they were doing? Then I thought, who better to work with than Carrie Davenport, who I had worked with on lots of occasions, both professionally and personally – she had done shoots for me, I’m a singer/songwriter – and I thought it would be fabulous if Carrie did the shots and we had this sort of ‘twin audio piece’ where people could explain what they were doing. So that’s where the idea came from.
Carrie: Basically, myself and Paul are both into tattoos. We know each other through work; we worked together on photography shoots, and workshops with kids, and various different people. We were just chatting about how we always ended up doing stuff together for work, and never getting to do something completely personal to us. We both love music, we both love tattoos, and we thought ‘why not doing an exhibition of music and tattoos?!” And we know ourselves, we always get asked all the time what our tattoos mean – and so does everybody else who has even a single tattoo! – so we thought it would be nice to get a wee glimpse into people’s lives. We did the first couple just to see how it would go, and they were just great. And it became a bit addictive, trying to find out more and more people’s stories! And people were really good at opening up as well, so that meant we just kept doing loads and loads of them after doing a couple for fun so we ended up thinking “we could really run with this and do something properly with this”.
► Did it occur organically, or was it a concerted effort from the start to focus on tattoos?
Paul: It was a quite clear brief at the start, because we knew we wanted portraits – we knew we wanted to visualise the tattoos in some way – but we thought the audio piece added a dimension to it. And then we thought with the video added, we wanted to, as I mentioned before, ‘democratise’ the whole thing because you’re a musician but you ( the subjects) also have a tattoo, so you’re in a sort of ‘gang’, as it were. But also with the video pieces we tried not to show the people’s faces, so we wanted to equalise the whole thing – it’s a great leveller, just to show the tattoo, let people say their own story – and then the portraits around the room. We also deliberately didn’t name the portraits (bar on the handout) – we wanted people to think, “I know that person” or have a sense of curiosity as to who is this person and what are they trying to say?
Carrie: The idea was to focus on the tattoos and the stories behind them, but whenever we were doing that we thought it was important to get people’s faces in the portraits as well, to show a bit of their personality. So all of the ones we have at the minute are very closely cropped to get a bit of eye contact – they’re looking off camera but you’re getting a bit of their personality as well. And the main idea is the story behind (the tattoo) rather than what the actual design is.
► Do you think you both work more sympathetically with tattooed people because you are both tattooed yourselves?
Paul: Yes, I think so. Some people still are uncomfortable with them, they still get bad press. And some right-wing people still think of them as demoralising and ‘not quite right’ but…once you’ve gone through that process of your first tattoo – it’s a big decision, a hard one; it takes years! – Then your second one! People say it’s an addiction, I prefer to think of it as a journey. But yes, your second one often takes years too! But you then have this shared right of passage because you’ve felt the pain that no one can explain, you’ve sat in that chair, you’ve had the cramps, you’ve had the rigmarole in your head – is this right? Is it wrong? Will I love this in ten years time? Will I get fat? Will it look like shit? – so you’ve made that statement to yourself. And I think we’re sympathetic because we know what we’re talking about, we’ve been there. And I think it’s important for all the people to respect their self-expression – I may not like every tattoo I see, but I respect the reason that someone got that tattoo done.
Carrie: I think…well, I was working at the London Tattoo Convention (at the end of September) taking photo’s for an agency, and some of the photo’s appeared on The Guardian website, and one of the comments on the website stated that “the photographers were clearly there to photograph a freak show and had no interest in tattoos”! And I thought, “nooo that’s completely not true!” And I think that maybe if you’re not into it yourself and don’t think of it as an art form that there kind of is that kind of thing where people just think – like, one of the comments below also said “what a way to defile a human body”…and you just want to shake them! I mean, I wouldn’t go up to them and tell them that their haircut is hideous! So why is it ok for you to tell me things like that? I think that I see them as a real art form and I appreciate the art and the creativity behind them, and the fact that you can go to somebody – cos, I can’t draw! But you can go to somebody and you have this thing that you want and they help you create it and it’s a process with somebody who’s an artist. And it’s a really unique thing to YOU. So maybe because we are interested in them ourselves it was the case that people were more relaxed with us? Because we weren’t looking to ‘show a freak show’, we weren’t going ‘ugh look at them and their tattoos’, it was more ‘we’re the same, we really love this’ and we wanted other people to talk about it and share their love of it as well. And all the tattoos, all the artwork is great, there’s a good mixture of small and big tattoos, and it’s all personal stories so you need that bit of trust in order for people to open up so it was really good, whereas I think if I went in with no tattoos they (the subjects) would have been a bit “er I don’t know about that!” (laughs).
► Do you think tattoos have become so acceptable – almost a fashion statement – that they are losing their ‘rebellious’ tag?
Paul: You know what? The Maoris have been using tattoos for millenia. It’s a way of expressing their beliefs and their rites. Everything is cyclical – who would have thought that plaid shirts would come back in, and beards – and yet here we are with plaid shirts and beards everywhere. I think it’s the choice of tattoo and what you do with it. Certainly there will be trends – people will have their weird stars and their tribal tattoos which will probably age with time and be of a certain period – but I think there’s always going to be this dimension of, you have a tattoo for a reason. I’m a bit longer in the tooth and I tend to disagree with young people going in and getting a full sleeve – a full sleeve is something you develop over your lifetime – I think as a fashion statement and to hand over a load of money to what may be a great tattoo artist and saying “just give me a sleeve”, it devalues and renders the tattoo to less than it should be. Because if I meet someone who has a sleeve I can look at it and think, “this is part of their life here!” And if they’ve had a clever artist, some will blend their work in to previous tattoos, which I think is equally clever. So I think it’s a ‘trend’ thing – we even have UV tattoos these days! We have 3D tattoos, we have scarring tattoos, we have burn tattoos – who knows where it will go? But I think, as a means of expression, to say what you want to say with your own body: I think it’s always going to be with us.
Carrie: Well it used to be that tattoos were the domain of sailors and prisoners really weren’t they? But then if you go back really far, there was tribal tattooing and Maori tattoos. So it’s been in a lot of other cultures, but it was never in ours. But now there’s things like ear stretching and piercing and tattooing – they’ve all become really commonplace. I think that people are looking for different ways to express themselves, and skin’s a bit plain without tattoos! But in some ways people don’t seem to think about them for as long anymore? You see people that are nineteen and have two full sleeves already! First of all you’re thinking, “did you win the lottery?!” And I know myself, I’ve got mine over a long period of time but they’ve changed because I’ve changed over that time, and I like that sort of ‘journey’ through them. I think it’s better if you spread them out over a while. But, my mum and dad have loads of tattoos, my brother only has one – he’s the wuss of the family (laughs) – and nearly everybody I know seems to have them now, so it’s not really a rebellious thing, it’s just something that people do you know?
► Finally, were there any funny stories that emerged from your photographing and recording sessions?
Paul: Do you know what, we just had an absolute ball. Of course it was difficult – we needed to get people to certain places to record – but it was the one to one, just having a chat with people. And the thing is, these were all done in one take, we just had people relaxed and easygoing. Probably my favourite one was Laura Totten, because Laura is a wonderful, beautiful all-American girl, and she just had a fantastic story. She used to be a model so when Carrie was taking her shots, she was voguing, she was moving! And it was so funny. The pose we ended up going with was a very ‘strong female’ – it’s very “fuck you, I’m a woman, I’ve got a tattoo and I don’t care what you think”, and I think that’s a great pose for modern women these days.
Carrie: Well I forgot to video Laura!!! That was a good one (laughs). Her story was amazing: it was the first time that I had ever met her, and her tattoo came about because she had a long lost brother that she had never met, and when she met him it turned out that he was a tattoo artist and he did her tattoo. So there was a whole family connection there, and the tattoo was symbolic of her meeting her brother and him designing this artwork for her. And it was just such a fascinating story that Paul and I got really engrossed in it! And then she left and I was saying, “wow that was amazing I FORGOT TO DO THE FILMING AAAAARGH!!!” And she was away and we had to phone her and say “I’m really sorry!” But we just got so lost in listening to her story and so interested that it was like ‘we forgot, can you come back?’ (laughs). But she came back and she did it again and it was absolutely great. In fact everybody’s stories have been great, they’re been really willing to share – even the likes of Danny (Morton) who said “I don’t have a story so I made one up haha”, we appreciated that because it was so honest!
Photographs courtesy of Carrie Davenport Photography