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Kev

Interesting opinion piece via the TAM Blog

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How Old Is Your Old-School?

Raises some interesting points.

Jason Lambert: How Old Is Your Old-School?

By Jason Lambert

If you hang around a tattoo shop long enough the chances are that you will hear a tattooer complain that tattooing is no longer as good as it was “in the old days.” One of the most common gripes along these lines is that people “these days” don’t just go into a shop and pick a design off the wall anymore, that tattooing is now about coddling customers wacky notions or interpreting their uncool dreams.

Many (if not most) of these folks were not actually tattooing when flash truly was king, yet they still long for the time when a tattooer didn’t have to think (or draw) and instead could pretend to be some blue-collar Joe-Sixpack and just tattoo like it was a “job.” Along with this attitude comes the notion that tattooers shouldn’t be called “artists” or that by doing tattoos based on the clients vision and bringing an artistic mind to the tattoo one is in violation of how tattooing was done “traditionally.”

I suppose this might be true from a certain viewpoint. If one’s entire view of the world of tattooing is based only on a Western one from the year 1930 ’til about 1985, then I guess you could argue that tattooing really is no longer like it was “in the old days.”

The problem with this view is that the world of tattooing is much, MUCH older than that. As humans we tend to measure everything with the yardstick of a human lifetime, but take a look at the figure below. (Click on timeline to enlarge image.)

While we humans have almost certainly been tattooing for nearly our entire existence (200,000-plus years) we only have direct evidence in the form of preserved skin going back to about 5,300 B.C. So even if we use this much abbreviated starting point for tattooing, it should be pretty obvious that the amount of time that tattooers worked primarily with flash is about 50 or 60 years. And 60 years is frankly, barely a blip on the timeline of tattooing’s history.

Before the modern era, the act of tattooing fulfilled a religious, unifying tribal identity, magical/medicinal, and initiation role for us human folk. For the vast history of tattooing it was used to do what modern-day tattooers bitch and moan about!

Tattooing’s purpose was to interpret dreams, to act as talisman, to fulfill whatever that unconscious desire is that has made us humans tattoo ourselves since before we built a single city. When one thinks about this enormous span of time (and the fact that tattooing was used for these specific purposes) it begins to feel like our little bit of “tradition” of walking into a stranger’s shop, picking some other person’s imagery off the wall, and getting it applied by someone who neither knows or cares about you is the thing “ruining” tradition, the real tradition. (The 5,000-year-old one!)

So maybe instead of modern custom tattooing being “too nice” or “not old-school,” maybe the reality is that tattooing is slowly bringing its self back into line with a millennia of deeper tradition. Maybe the real aberration is the time period when we tried to take the hippie/shaman aspect out of tattooing, and it is now correcting itself?

Think of it this way; the real period of the American “Old West” with cowboys and indians, cattle drives, sheriffs and shoot-outs lasted only from 1880 ’til about 1905, (roughly 25 years) and yet it has taken on a terribly outsized importance to our self-image as “Americans.” In the same way, the relatively brief period of “traditional” American tattooing has caused more than a few tattooers to despise anything at variance with their golden-era myth of tattooing’s supposed magic/scary days.

Of course, I am not trying to say that the 20th century of Western tattooing was not an amazing and vibrant time in tattooing’s history, it absolutely was! But like anything, when we idolize that idealization it comes at the expense of seeing the bigger picture and appreciating our real place in it. When we ignore the role of tattoos in the other 4,900 years of its recorded existence, then we also ignore the true power and nobility of our art-form. It’s like being so in love with a pretty shell on the beach that we miss the whole rest of the ocean that created it.

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I think there is a lot of truth in this article. I for one do enjoy the American Traditional style of tattooing and will always be biased towards it. That doesn't mean I don't think there are people doing good stuff in other realms of tattooing and that tattoos in general continue to get better. Each person tattooing has their own style, and a base of customers who want that type of tattoo, so I mean there is a place for everyone, except maybe realistic color portraits of actors in their movie roles, that is to tattooing what rollerblading is to skateboarding in my opinion.

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interesting article. i was just saying the other day to a customer who i've done a few custom pieces on, but who was getting a piece of my flash this time, that i wish people would get more flash. generally it seems that customers do not have good ideas. i also think there is a beauty in sharing a design with other people, though that means that it is not original.

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...i was just saying the other day to a customer who i've done a few custom pieces on, but who was getting a piece of my flash this time, that i wish people would get more flash. generally it seems that customers do not have good ideas...

Walk-in Customer: "Can you do a woodchuck with a monocle,handlebar mustache riding a tallbike w/ an owl holding keys?"

Tattooer:"Sure thing, let me sketch that right up

*a few minutes later...*

Tattooer:"Here's the stencil, you ready to start?"

Walk-in Customer: "Hmm-my bicycle-riding gentleman woodchuck with his owl friend sure came out looking like an eagle fighting a snake on a skull"

Tattooer:"Sorry, that's how I draw 'em"

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Walk-in Customer: "Can you do a woodchuck with a monocle,handlebar mustache riding a tallbike w/ an owl holding keys?"

Tattooer:"Sure thing, let me sketch that right up

*a few minutes later...*

Tattooer:"Here's the stencil, you ready to start?"

Walk-in Customer: "Hmm-my bicycle-riding gentleman woodchuck with his owl friend sure came out looking like an eagle fighting a snake on a skull"

Tattooer:"Sorry, that's how I draw 'em"

Hahaha I wish that actually happened

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I find the term custom confusing. So getting a crawling panther is not cool because it's flash, but being the 1000th person to get an owl or your favorite song lyric makes you original? Or having a tattoo with no outline is somehow a good idea just because you think it's a new idea. I use these as examples but it works with every tattoo trend, I hear people talk down about flash and then proceed to jump on the next tattoo trend because all the cool kids are getting "custom tattoos" so they bring their google search image to the nearest shop to blow your mind. I think the reason some tattooers say that they would like people to get more flash is not because they don't want to draw tattoos for people, but they just talk to so many people with bad ideas for tattoos. Furthermore I have seen more that one custom tattoo specialist butcher a piece of flash so there has to be some credit to the application of clean traditional tattoo even if it is someone else's design. This is not to discredit the people out there trying to draw things better and breath new life into old designs to establish the nuances of this era in traditional tattooing, but most of them I have met would have no issue with doing a nice piece of flash or people that make a living that way.

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I agree with some of what he said, but the notion about the "hippie/shaman " resurgence in tattooing to be wildly romantic .Tattooing is less for the outsider today more than ever ,I think hes confused the long haired metal stylings of some of todays guys as hippies ,cause the closest thing I see to hippies on either side of the fence are the Leu Family and Freddy Corbin.In the coolest possible way of course .

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I find the term custom confusing. So getting a crawling panther is not cool because it's flash, but being the 1000th person to get an owl or your favorite song lyric makes you original? Or having a tattoo with no outline is somehow a good idea just because you think it's a new idea. I use these as examples but it works with every tattoo trend, I hear people talk down about flash and then proceed to jump on the next tattoo trend because all the cool kids are getting "custom tattoos" so they bring their google search image to the nearest shop to blow your mind. I think the reason some tattooers say that they would like people to get more flash is not because they don't want to draw tattoos for people, but they just talk to so many people with bad ideas for tattoos. Furthermore I have seen more that one custom tattoo specialist butcher a piece of flash so there has to be some credit to the application of clean traditional tattoo even if it is someone else's design. This is not to discredit the people out there trying to draw things better and breath new life into old designs to establish the nuances of this era in traditional tattooing, but most of them I have met would have no issue with doing a nice piece of flash or people that make a living that way.

I think it's mostly the troll cave they hang out at and talk about it that does the custom bug a dis-service. I will admit I used to hate flash something fierce, I credit it to working street shops and blowing through sheet after sheet of cherry creek and tattoo johny stuff. I love the shit now and good flash teaches you the right recipes to become a better "custom" tattooer. I see the same thing every day. " My homeboy does shit freehand." "Do you freehand or stencil?" "FREEHAAAANNNDDD!!" I think a certain demographic is more inclined to go to a house, get tattooed "freehand" and now it's the shit. Not understanding that working shit out on paper will keep their awesome rib piece looking like shit. There are maybe a handful of dudes that understand tattooing enough to go to town with a sharpie imhp. And I sir am not one of them. I like the article and I like art being brought into tattooing more. It gives me a chance to not tattoo bugs bunny spacejamming. But fuck I miss bugs bunny, taz and marvin. Nike signs just do it's and kanji. Bread and butter

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Im glad the article got people talking. my point in writing it was because I was reading an article on the "iceman" and was blown away that the earliest piece of human skin we have preserved had tattoos on it, it really put into perspective how long we have been doing this to ourselves and how funny it is that what we consider the "old days" was only a few decades in a span of at least 7000 years.

As usual, some folks feel the need to split off into camps and some folks have implied that Im saying that flash is "bad" or "custom" is better buit anyone who has seen my work knows I do both with equal respect and the same goes for most tattooers these days.

It was about keeping the "big picture" in mind, not about what sort of tattooing was "best".

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Jason, I think your article was well written and you brought up a lot of points, many of which are discussed regularly amongst the people around me. My response seems to be more of a rebuttal to the discussion we have at the shop and similar threads on here regarding "custom work". I think my points are valid but never meant to imply that you reflect that type of mindset. Thank you the article.

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I think most people refer down to the later 19th and earlier 20th century in western culture because it all of a sudden got popular and public after being banned for soo long. Nobody would talk about it except for die hard bad asses who got together to do badassery. Not many people do research after they have been told something their whole life. People are very dogmatic in the sense that rough tough guys get tattooed not women (1800-1900) Now it's the 2000's and the doors have been blown open and most books are on sailor jerry, not a whole lot of MY clients anyways know about bert grimm among others waaaaaay before him "Percy Waters". people want to be educated they don't want to educate themselves. The easy way is too good for some folks, I have a minor in anthropology and did a ton of research on ancient civ images and what they meant to other cultures and castes. In Borneo right now the kids in the city will not get tattooed. they view it as being a hillbilly living in a hut on a river. Twenty years ago your gods wouldn't have seen you if you didn't have a symbol, nor would you find a good marriage. Shit is changing but there are two examples, east and west of young people not wanting to know where they come from. Your article was awesome and i wish more people were doing this kind of historical study even just for shits and giggles. But I think I got off track. Slow day finished a paint early lol.

Cheers!

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