Tattooed Women

With this series I continue my practice of alluding to historical painting styles and themes as a means of prompting various contextual associations. I began by referencing portrait painting – specifically the genre paintings of Frans Hals – gradually merging this with allusions to other historic painting, figure painting, and up to the precursors of early modernism.

I am aware of the precarious nature inherent in employing obsolete painting styles – particularly in figurative works from live female models. It is through this subject matter however that I attempt to imbue these familiar strategies with contemporary vitality and coherence.

Until the recent wave of body modification that encompasses piercing, scarification, and branding, tattooing was nearly the exclusive domain of men in western cultures. Women who chose this path were – and to a great extent still are – subject to social ostracism. In the time it took to create this series, tattooing in the U.S. went from being merely tolerated by society, to suddenly achieving broad acceptance.

Extensively tattooed, the pioneers of female tattooing represented in these paintings forthrightly control their appearance – the iconization of their own bodies – confronting traditional ideals of beauty by creating their own canon within a subculture. Though these women predated the current fad, most female tattooing is still done on the body where it is covered by clothing in everyday situations. A casual observer might never know or only glimpse the hidden designs. The choice of revealing or concealing is the owner’s. The dual acts of self-alteration and selective disclosure are forms of empowerment – affirmations of personal control. In this light the rise of the practice among women can be seen as an extension of the feminism of the sixties and seventies.

Placing the figures in the context of portrait and historical painting throws into relief the arbitrary nature of beauty in any given cultural context. Introducing female subjects whose appearance and (perhaps) implied lifestyles conflict with cultural norms, disrupts the conventions of the well-documented “male gaze.” The danger of resorting to irony for the purpose of ridicule is averted partly through adherence to conventional painting traditions. The work is not without occasional ironic intent, but never for purposes of derision.

Another aspect inherent in this series is that it reveals a layered stratum of artistic expression. Tattoo devotees typically view their bodies as personal works of art, and the tattoo artist is intent on making art on his (or increasingly, her) living canvas. As an art form, tattooing has its own history and aesthetics and the tattooed individual is a product – a record – of a particular place and time in that historical line. My paintings add another layer, subjectively encompassing my perceptions of several layers of artistic and cultural intentions.