sally is a 25 year old machine free tattooist who has previously worked at UNI VERSE in Berlin, Sacred Art in London, Greenpoint Tattoo Company and Saved Tattoo in New York. sally has a zine of illustrations out entitled Pen Island published by Discipline Press and has curated a number of exhibitions and discussions in Canada featuring local artists and activists. sally’s further artworks and contact can be found via sally-boy.tumblr.com
Considering my success within ‘contemporary’ tattoo culture:
I started tattooing myself in 2013 in a halfway home for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts with a sewing needle and thread.
When I look at my practice today, a lot of times I feel like the recognition I’ve received is disproportionate to my experience, understanding of, or relationship to the skill.
My rise to popularity had a lot to do with the advancement of social media’s inﬂuence on tattoo culture, simultaneous with the rise of ‘stick and poke’ tattooing in mainstream western tattoo aesthetics.
Moving from a practice that resided within a private, DIY, and community based settings to a more commercial structure provided me with insight into current landscapes of mainstream tattooing which I did not have before; many of which I found incoherent with my introduction to the ritual and art form.
Cis-gendered white men have always dominated western tattoo communities (as well as the majority of the western world since colonization). As early as the 1960s tattooing had reached a level of consumerism in North America that could be comparable to that of fashion or lifestyle. This is not to say that there haven’t been a vast number of practitioners who actively work against this trend.
During my earlier years, and somewhat still today, I too identiﬁed as a cis-white.male. Though most of my identiﬁers would grant me access to mainstream tattoo spaces and communities, my sexuality and relationship to gender left me feeling on the outside regardless. In addition to this I continued to have a hard time incorporating capital exchange into my practice.
I found that my relationship to the act of tattooing itself was not frequently represented in the community I was becoming a part of i.e. tattooing one’s self as a means of self-care, recovery, and redeﬁnition of identity. Many of the practitioners I was meeting were much more comfortable with the ‘capital.exchange-for-tattoo’ system than I was.
My rise to popularity had a lot to do with the advancement of social media’s inﬂuence on tattoo culture
Continuing to tattoo myself and collecting more tattoos, I maintained my growing position within the industry of tattooing, in part because I was becoming unsure of my employability outside of it. It was also an invaluable opportunity to meet and work with some of the artists who prior to had only been inspirational ﬁgures in my life. Other advancements in my physical, mental and emotional circumstances began to change as I uncovered a truer sense of gender and sexuality. I felt it was important to disclose this considering the lack of representation I mentioned before (cis-white-male-dominance in post-colonial western tattoo culture).
This has led me to the position in which I present my introductory point. Is my success within ‘contemporary’ tattoo culture disproportionate to my experience, understanding and relationship to the skill? If I had not presented myself as a strictly cis-white-male when I was introduced to the community at large, would I have received the same amount of attention? How clearly is my relationship with tattoos as self-care and redeﬁnition-of-identity translated in my practice? Is it possible to simultaneously represent the practice of tattooing one’s self while promoting the capital exchange for work from another artist?
Perhaps this requires a closer look at the idea of ‘contemporary’ tattoo culture. ‘Contemporary’ is deﬁned as
1. living or occurring at the same time. “the event was recorded by a contemporary historian”
2. belonging to or occurring in the present. “the tension and complexities of our contemporary society”
Using the latter deﬁnition, I can propose the idea that when discussing ‘contemporary’ tattoo culture, we are talking about tattoo culture that is ‘belonging to or occurring in the present’.
With that framework a large diversity of cultures can be included in this discussion, and success within those cultures will be as diversely varied.
When I align myself to that perspective I suppose all I can relate is that I do not believe in successful tattooing as that which receives widespread acknowledgement from critical/cultural review. Nor do I feel satisﬁed with my practice if it simply garners a comfortable or excessive income and operates primarily within a capital system.
It is for these reasons which I have decided to step away from ‘commercial’ or ‘capital’ tattooing and return my practice to more intimate circumstances which are centered in the healing and redeﬁnition of one’s identity. By doing so I hope I can better represent the unique ‘culture’ within ‘contemporary’ tattooing that I most relate to.