Ink & Canvas
A familiar hum of tattoo guns reverberates in a downtown shop where people adorn their bodies in a tradition thousands of years old.
Across history, tattoos have been worn as status symbols, rites of passage and marks of rebellion. European sailors brought tattoos back with them from Polynesia where men and women tattooed their faces to display their rank, prowess and lineage. Ancient Japanese covered their bodies in elaborate suits representing the ornate kimonos whose use was restricted solely to royalty and the elite. Prior to that, Egyptian women wore tattoos thought to protect themselves throughout childbearing. The art dates back more than 5,000 years to a mummy named Ötzi who was discovered frozen in the Alps.
From elongated necks, bound waists and feet to dieting, bodybuilding and stretched earlobes, tattoos are just one instance of a human-history rich in body modification.
The art of tattooing is not that extreme when compared to other forms of body modification like plastic surgery or body building, said Nathan Haynes, Austin tattoo artist at True Blue Tattoo. “Tattooing has been a part of the human experience for years and years.”
For Austin resident Jessica Orr, each of her tattoos comes with a story: Wisdom passed down from her grandmother, a flower for her mother, even the placement of her tattoos have meaning.
Symbolism for the tattoo wearer comes in many forms. Some represent group identity; others past experiences. Spiritual and memorial tattoos are some of the most pervasive tattoos and have been around almost since tattooing began.
Tattoos are frequently used as a means of reclaiming ownership of one’s body after difficult or traumatic events. “They’re moments I have to remember — good or bad,” said Jon Shakarisaz, who’s spent nearly 60 hours in the shop with his artist, Cory Correia. “The one on my back was about my divorce, and when Cory was done, it felt like it laid the matter to rest.”
For both the artist and the tattooed, the pain and process can be as cathartic as the art itself is. “I like things I can focus on and really give my full attention to,” Haynes said. “Tattooing is kind of therapeutic for me in that way.”
However, many tattoos have little regard for symbolism or explanation. For some, tattoos exist simply as a means to decorate the body as a human canvas or because the tattoos themselves create an event to be remembered.
“They don’t all have to have meaning, but I like them all for different reasons. Mostly because I like the people who gave them to me,” True Blue Tattoo artist Chelsea Kotzer said.
The road to becoming a tattoo artist can be long and arduous. It begins with an apprenticeship that can last anywhere from two to five years, in which the apprentice never picks up a gun. “Most people give up before they finish,” said Correia, who now manages True Blue Tattoo on Red River Street.
Additionally, skin is an entirely different medium than painting or drawing on canvas. Some skin is elastic; others are tough. Some are more absorbent, while others seem to reject certain colors. Some bleed more than others. “It’s just something you learn with experience,” tattoo artist Zulu said. “I can tell in the first five seconds if something isn’t going to work out on someone’s body.”
A lot of people can draw like da Vinci; give them a tattoo gun, and it’s a mess,” Zulu said. “That’s why a lot of people get frustrated and give up.”
Austin resident Lauren McIntyre is having a large tattoo “two-years in the making” fixed by Zulu before her April wedding.
Zulu’s transformation of McIntyre’s previously-unfinished back piece is seamless, artist-to-artist: A mostly-formless green patch on her back is ornamented with the organic, intricate lining characteristic of Art Nouveau. “That’s the tough thing with any cover up or addition,” Zulu said. “It’s making it all look intentional.”
Zulu, owner of Zulu tattoo in Austin and formerly L.A., has been tattooing for more than 25 years. His background in art began as many other tattoo artist’s do, in illustration, graphic design and later painting and drawing. After years of designing graphics for products and privately designing tattoos for friends, he eventually decided to teach himself how to tattoo.
For Zulu, design was unrewarding: solely to sell a product, with no regard for art form, culture or history. “People want tattoos because it’s more meaningful and personal,” he said. “It’s the ultimate artform; when someone says: I like your art so much I want to wear it on my body forever.”
While the history of the modern tattoo can be mostly traced back to Polynesian and Japanese roots, a plethora of other styles exist today: American, Trash-Polka, watercolor, dotwork, black and grey, lettering, realist, surrealist, biomechanical, Tahitian, Samoan, Maori, Hawaiian, Celtic, Native American, Haida, to name a few. When searching for an artist, it’s important to find someone who specializes in the style of tattoo you’re wanting. While Zulu is an iconic line work and tribal tattoo artist, Correia specializes in watercolor and Haynes in traditional-American.