I was at a store recently and the man staffing the check-out counter had full sleeve tattoos on both of his arms. The colorful koi fish and shading used in the water made the tattoos so vibrant and I thought they were stunning. I commented on how beautiful his tattoos are and how neat it must be to have his own art gallery right there on his body. He smiled and said he had never thought about his tattoos that way before. He also told me that he was already saving up money for his next tattoo and would be going back to the same artist to get it done.
This conversation sparked my curiosity about the relationship aspect of getting a tattoo, which is clearly beyond just artist and client. When I thought more about it, I wondered whether tattoo artists feel there are connections back to the historic tradition of the artist-patron relationship or not. I was also intrigued by the fact that in the case of tattoos, the person receiving the art is both the client and the canvas and what dynamics that creates in the working relationship with the artist.
Interested to learn more, I wanted to hear directly from a tattoo artist. I spoke with Natan Alexander, a gifted tattoo artist who is the owner of two shops including Witch City Ink in Salem, MA and the founder of the Boston Tattoo Convention (now in its twentieth year) and the Massachusetts Tattoo Convention. He is also the co-founder and co-owner of Star & Snake, an artist retreat in New Hampshire. His insights dramatically expanded my understanding of the relationship behind tattoos and I greatly appreciated hearing his unique perspective.
An Antique Sage article, “The History and Future of the Artist-Patron Relationship,” details the dynamics of the artist-patron relationships in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. Natan described how in those periods, a few artists were supported by wealthy individuals or institutions (for example, the Catholic church) but that the system of patronage left many artists wrestling for scraps. In contrast, he feels that tattoo artists today have unparalleled opportunities to connect with people thanks to social media and other venues. “There is a level of personal empowerment for artists now that is beautiful and meaningful. People can see your work, make educated decisions, and interact with you directly.” As a result of his Instagram (@natanink), Natan has been contacted by people around the world who then come to get tattooed by him. “Tattooing is now a way for artists to make a viable living. Artists can choose their specific focus within their career. There’s an artist for everyone and now there is no excuse for a bad tattoo.”
A parallel with the Renaissance period is that people seeking to get tattoos are often choosing personal subjects they want incorporated into the artwork. Just as Raphael put a relative of his patron Pope Julius II in one of his most famous paintings, many people asking for tattoos want the artist to add visual connections to their family or other personal details. For example, a tattoo of a cross might be surrounded by the initials of people who passed away or one of three butterflies might represent a person’s three children. A notable difference is that today, tattoo artists do not have to compromise their artistic vision based on what their client requests. Not being solely reliant on a single benefactor to finance their work provides tattoo artists with more autonomy and freedom. Natan noted that at times, you need to have very direct conversations with people about what they are asking for. “You have to be realistic with people about what will work and what won’t work. You have to stay within your integrity as an artist. You need to make sure the tattoo will complement the person.”
One of the most unique elements of getting a tattoo is that rather than producing a painting or sculpture, the artist is creating their work directly on the skin of their client. The fact that the art is being made right on the person and they are participating in the creation of the work makes the relationship unique and more collaborative. Both the pain of the creative process coupled with the physical pain of getting the tattoo makes this a very personal art form. “There is an energy exchange that occurs. You are spending a few hours together and they will leave with something that will be part of their lives forever,” Natan said. He has worked with many clients who are getting massive back pieces or other large, highly complex tattoos that require a substantial amount of time over many months or even years. He also has a lot of clients who come back to him for multiple tattoos. “You build relationships with people. I have made a lot of friends through my work.”
Tattoos are often a source of pride and a symbol of triumph in the face of personal adversity. I remember one of my grandmother’s friends decided to get a full chest tattoo after recovering from her double mastectomy. The tattoo artist had created a beautiful beach sunset scene and this transformed the way the woman felt about that part of her body. He had helped her reclaim it from cancer. In asking Natan about this, he gave many examples of his different clients who went through a similar process of reclaiming their bodies through choosing to get tattoos. One woman who suffered from alopecia chose to have him create a colorful, detailed tattoo where her hair had been. On his Instagram, you get to see the powerful evolution of this piece from the outline stage all the way through its completion (as seen in the image above). In one of the posts, Natan commented that his client “bravely chose to adorn herself with fearless intention and fierce determination.” In seeing these pictures, I was very inspired by this spectacular work of art and its deep, personal significance to the client.
For people memorializing loved ones through tattoos, the pain of the process can actually be a source of healing. In Natan’s experience, “sometimes it’s less about the image and more about the process. Pain is an incredible teacher. It gives you a relationship with your body in terms of sensation. It lets you know you are there.” In any situation where people are overcoming trauma or tragedy, Natan said that “it’s important to name it” and that he is often in “a therapist’s role of listening and making sure a person feels heard.”
Following my conversation with Natan, when I see tattoos now, I think even more about the profound relationships that brought these works to life. I encourage you to do the same. It doesn’t matter whether you are a person who has tattoos, a person like me who doesn’t have them but admires them, or someone who doesn’t have strong feelings either way. Natan described his role as both an “artist and craftsman who helps people try to express themselves. I’m working with a person who will be performing that tattoo in the world.” When we see people’s tattoos, we are being given free admission to a personal gallery created by gifted artists like Natan. Enjoy the show.