Tattoos may have lost much of their past stigma but are they art? We suspect that if you ask the fine art world and tattooists that question you’ll get two very different answers. This exhibition doesn’t quite ask this but rather shows off the talent of modern tattoo artists and the various themes of death, love and religion they cover.
The artists have displayed 70 original artworks including some specifically commissioned for this exhibition. The works use traditional mediums such as oil, watercolour and bronze sculpture; and though some do feature tattoos on the body of painted subjects there are no actual ink-on-skin tattoos on display.
This lack of actual tattoos positions the show as an art exhibition and therefore invites the viewer to see this not as body art, but simply art. When seen with this lens, the themes mirror vanitas paintings by Old Masters and contemporary urban art. But this approach means that in a like-for-like comparison with the fine art world, these works do fall short. There’s no denying the talent and the intricate details of the art on display but it doesn’t offer anything beyond what can be found in the works of many talented artists outside the world of tattooing who are working today.
It would help if we could actually see photographs of works by these artists in situ on skin, as that would have highlighted the exceptional technical talent required to be a modern tattoo artist. We like the concept of challenging our perceptions of fine art and Somerset House has tried to do this before, last year with a show on culinary art, but just as with that show this exhibition falls short of meeting expectations.
Time: Tattoo Art Today is on at Somerset House, Embankment Galleries until 5 October. Entrance is free. Also on around Somerset House are the paintings of novelist Beryl Bainbridge at the King’s Cultural Institute and Bruegel to Freud at the Courtauld Gallery.
For more art to see in London, check out our July listings.