Art that walks out the door

by Jesse Kiser

Some see their body as a canvas for art. Some want attention. But most see it as a way of being and finding themselves. You cut your hair a certain way, grow a beard or buy a particular pair of pants. Why not get a certain type of tattoo for your skin?

There are a lot of emotions bundled into getting a tattoo, whether it be that piece of flash you got when you turned 18 or your siblings’ initials under your arm. Either way they all mean something. Each tattoo is like a cover to a book; ask someone about the story behind her tattoos and be prepared sit down for a while. Not all of them represent something important, but all of them have a story.

In addition to the artwork displayed on cars at the Heavy Rebel Weekender on Trade Street in Winston-Salem was an equally artistic display of tattoos; canvases walking around all weekend. A major difference tattoo artists have from conventional artists is the fact that their canvases walk out the door after the piece is finished, leaving no guarantee the art work will return or ever be seen by the artist again.

Tattooing as an art form has been around for a while. Remember the Iceman they dug up in Antarctica? He was proof of how old tattoos are, although he didn’t have his girlfriend’s name on his butt cheek. His tattoos marked his tribe and ranking. Today tattoos are similar in that they classify who you are, just in a different way.

Sailor Jerry is arguably the man who made tattoos what they are today. During the ’40s and ’50s, some time after WWII, Sailor Jerry was stationed in Honolulu giving tattoos to Navy seamen. They came back to base with stories of where they had been or who they had met. So Sailor Jerry would give stamps of places they had been or faces of women they had met to remind them of their time at sea.

Like an old song bringing you back to a different time in your life, a tattoo connects you to your past. Byron Weeks, co-owner of local tattoo parlor Earth’s Edge, says that not all tattoos have an important meaning but, “I can remember when and where I was in life with each tattoo I have.” Tattoos represent memories of times past or even make religious statements, as is exemplified by the tattoos of Joe Killingsworth, AKA Joe Joecephus, member of the George Johnstown Massacre band, who has tattoos covering both arms.

Killingsworth has a tattoo of Johnny Cash’s infamous picture, the one portraying Cash giving the middle finger while performing. With his teeth biting his bottom lip in rage, Cash looks outward; this image covers Killingsworth’s entire back. His arms are covered from shoulder to wrist, known as “sleeves.” His right shoulder features a crucified Jesus on steel H-beams, suspended above a city and the statement “Jesus saves T-shirts” beside him. This is in rebellion to a local church’s exposition, in which the church sold mugs, pens and T-shirts. The tattoo is mocking the idea the Church has about Jesus, saying that if he were to return to earth he would be hung, like the tattoo on his arm, over a city for all to gawk at. Killingsworth’s tattoo collection seems endless, and it features very detailed artwork with specific features. The Cash photo, Jesus, Bob Marley and Al Pacino in Taxi Driver are all photorealistic works of art. Killingsworth waited several years for his tattoo artist to return from France before he was able to continue his collection. But it was well worth the wait for the beautiful detailed work.

Choosing an artist is the most important decision a person will make in deciding what tattoo to get. His tattoos were customized and specific to what he wanted, but not all tattoos are this way.

More common pieces you might see, like a rose with a lover’s name in it, are considered pieces of flash. Flash is like going into Macy’s and buying a piece of Tommy Hilfiger clothing. You personally cannot go to Hilfiger himself and have a custom piece of clothing, but you can walk into a store and find something with his specific style – if you like his style, of course. The same goes for flash. A signature and popular tattoo artist usually publishes five or six pages of tattoo artwork at a time and sells them to tattoo shops. So the average consumer can have a piece of artwork with their favorite tattoo artist’s signature style. Okay, so now that you have your piece picked out and are on your way to the tattoo shop here are some words to the wise about getting your first.

Do your research. The only regrets to be found are held by tattoo artists and collectors alike and involve the artwork itself. It’s not what the tattoo is but how it was done. Either the artwork was too intricate to be tackled by tattoo or by the artist him self. The artwork could have been too complicated and detailed to be put onto skin. Weeks says, “It’s like writing with a Sharpie on a napkin; skin changes.” The artists are sometimes inexperienced. So know what you are getting yourself into.

The all-too-common opposition to tattoos is: What will you do when you get old? Won’t it be an embarrassment when you are in the old folks’ home? Weeks has a quick and simple response, “It’ll give the nurses something to look at when they change my diapers.”