Tattoos are everywhere and come in varying degrees of sophistication, but where does the act of inserting inks and pigments into the skin cross over from decoration to bona fide artwork, worthy of placement in a museum exhibition? Amanda Wachob, a true pioneer at the intersection of craft and art who started cold as a tattoo apprentice, shows how it is done in Tattoo This, a showcase of work at MCA Denver that both respects and jumps the boundaries of using human skin as a canvas. Wachob’s hard-earned skill with the needle now plays out on paper, cloth, leather and fruit, in addition to skin, making freestyle watercolor-like strokes, designs and marbled effects more likely to adorn a painting or a photograph. We had a few questions for the artist as she embarks on a weeklong residency of live tattooing at MCA. Here’s her take on a brand-new medium.
Amanda Wachob: I never really knew about tattoos. I didn’t even have one, but I got an apprenticeship. A friend of mine said the owners of a tattoo shop were hiring an apprentice, and I was a new grad right out of art school with no idea about what to do with my fine-art photography degree.
He was convinced that I would love it, so I asked the owners and showed them some of my drawings, photos and paintings, and they gave me the job. I immediately became consumed with tattooing
So you had formal fine-art training first, before you ever tried tattoo art?
Definitely. I tried all kinds of different kinds of things in school: prints, painting, photographs and so on. After I got the job, I started looking at tattooing as another medium to learn. I saw something that I could not learn in art school.
It’s actually one of the oldest art forms. People have gone back and researched tattoos back 5,000 years, but I feel like it’s even older. The idea of adornment to express something about the self and creativity—this has been a part of culture for so long, to adorn and accessorize ourselves. Tattoos are an extension of that.
Now, in terms of modern times, it’s everywhere. We see celebrities with tattoos, go to tattoo shows, and also just hear about it from the press.
Did you develop your watercolor-style techniques over time?
The easiest way to make a tattoo with color is to tattoo and outline with a black line, then shade it in, but that didn’t make sense to me: They’re formulaic, tedious and boring to render, like a coloring book. If someone brought a photo of a flower from their garden and wanted me to turn it into a tattoo, I would basically fill it in, but for photorealism, that’s not how to do it. I chose the option of leaving the black line out to make it look more like a photo instead of an illustration, and more people started asking for them.
Now I've started to get wild with it. Tattooing is extremely hard. It initially takes a long time before you see work coming back that’s even healed well. So many things can go wrong. It’s also hard to learn working with color—it’s a more difficult technique than just using black ink.
Color is a thicker medium. It’s like a powder you mix with liquids into a thicker formula. Black is thinner, more like liquid carbon. Color can be a bit harder to get in solid, and it’s more time-consuming. You have to pay more attention to how you are layering color, so a lot of people don't like to work with it.
What’s the level of difficulty?
Tattooing now feels to me like I'm driving a car. You no longer have to look for the yellow line, because you just know it’s there. It’s second nature.
I’m doing something more technically difficult. For marbled tattoos, there are so many lines you have to draw within the stencils. I feel more excited by working that way; I feel more challenged, so it’s more comfortable for me.
Do you find that some people have trouble with the idea of using tattooing as a medium to make fine art?
It’s one of the hardest art forms, and we’re not getting enough credit for that. It can also just be a craft. You can make tattoos with black outlines. If you want to do tattoos that are more like paintings, you can do that, too. Tattooing should have validity as an art form, but many see it as more of a craft or trade instead.
I’ll be here for a week and a half. I’ll be doing eleven tattoos in the main part of the gallery among the canvases. All eleven will correlate with the canvases, so I’ll be linking them back to the artwork and the art back to the people.
Adam Lerner and I will also be giving a talk on February 20, extending the dialogue between contemporary art and tattooing. There might be a few tickets left!
Amanda Wachob will be in residence tattooing human subjects in her galleries twice daily February 15 through 21 at MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street. Tattooing slots are filled, but spectators are welcome. Find Wachob’s demo schedule on the MCA’s home page.
Hear Amanda Wachob and Adam Lerner in conversation at 7 p.m. Wednesday, February 20, at the Holiday Event Center, 2644 West 32nd Avenue. Admission is $10 to $15 in advance at mcadenver.org and includes one free admission to the MCA within a month after the talk.
Amanda Wachob: Tattoo This runs through May 26 at MCA Denver, along with Aftereffect: Georgia O’Keeffe and Contemporary Painting and Andrew Jensdotter: Flak.