Tattooing has persisted as an art form across the globe for millennia — evidence of tattoos points to it as a practiced used by various cultures for over 10,000 years.
Throughout the history of their use, tattoos have never been stenciled on a human canvas for a singular reason — the ideas that have caused millions of people to permanently ink themselves are multifold and constantly changing. For many, that’s the beauty behind a tattoo: It unites humans as living, breathing canvases, regardless of the diversity of a person’s creed, religion, race, ethnicity, sexual background and passions.
So what do you think of when you see a tattoo?
Do you think that it is beautiful or repulsive?
Are you curious or disgusted, fascinated or confused?
“My tattoos say struggle and success,” Jose Magana, a fourth-year political science major said. “They give me a daily reminder that if you ever want to reach success, you have to struggle.”
Kip Fulbeck, a UCSB art professor and novelist, recently traveled the world to study the art of tattoos. He interviewed hundreds for his 2008 book “Permanence: Tattoo Portraits” in search of what inspires people to embody their stories in ink.
“My work has always been about identity,” Fulbeck said. “I’m not interested in the actual tattoo. I’m more interested in why they do what they do.”
In all of his travels, Fulbeck said the only constant has been that everyone has their own different reasons for getting inked.
J.J. Ortiz, one of the owners of downtown Santa Barbara’s 805 Ink, discovered his love for the art at a young age when he saw some older men tattooing in a backyard.
He was hooked. The sound of the needles, the time spent with his neighborhood friends and the chance to be creative were addicting.
“[Tattooing] didn’t look that hard,” Ortiz said with a laugh. “I did my first tattoo on this girl in junior high. She wanted a “J” for this guy she liked, and they actually ended up getting married. It wasn’t good at all, but that was the beginning.”
“It’s constantly a learning process,” Jay said. “Every day is learning. Every tattoo counts.”
And each person involved in the process counts. Every artist has a different forte; every customer a different vision.
In his travels, Fulbeck said he noticed that some tattoos show obvious evidence of foresight while some seem more spur-of-the-moment. Some, like Amy Romeo, a second-year biopsychology major, incorporate their own designs and enduring life experiences into their work — as opposed to the much teased ‘tramp stamp’ effect.
Romeo creates her own artwork and recently started tattooing her friends. She illustrated the tattoo on her back, which pictures her ribcage as if layers of skin had been peeled back with a zipper, before it was inked by a tattoo artist.
“[The drawing] was originally for my concentration portfolio in high school for my AP art class,” Romeo said. “We had to come up with a theme and a lot of my artwork ended up coming out with anatomy. I’ve always liked human anatomy; I find it fascinating.”
These different ‘schools of tattooing,’ Fulbeck said, were evident across the globe.
“There are those who get tattoos without putting much thought into what they want,” Fulbeck said. “Some people end up liking them, and some don’t. [The tattoos serve] as a scar on your body, kind of showing who you were at that time. It’s like a historical roadmap. Then there is the second school of people who wait and wait and wait and do their research, get to know different artists and then get the tattoo.”
In Japan, he met several artists who emphasized the importance of the relationship between the tattoo artist and the tattooee. Fulbeck met Horitaka — now a close friend and the author of the foreword to “Permanence” — who introduced him to Horiyoshi III, the most renowned Japanese tattoo artist alive. In fact, Horiyoshi III gave Fulbeck a tattoo.
When he came back from Japan, Fulbeck said, the prevalence of tattoo shops in the U.S. seemed to show a slightly more pop-culture tinge to American ink.
Nonetheless, hordes of tattoo artists treat their craft with a seriousness matching the permanency of their art.
Pat Fish of Santa Barbara-based LuckyFish Tattoo, a specialist in Celtic art, says she invests her time heavily into each tattoo assignment to connect on an individual level with each client.
“I do a lot of research and find out what’s really meaningful to you,” Fish said. “Say you wanted a bird. If it came to it, I would go to the Natural History Museum to find the exact bird you wanted.”
According to Fish, the majority of her clientele has been with her for 26 years, and respects her mastery of the tattoo so much that individuals will fly out from various parts of the world to get a new tat.
“I wanted to do an art form that was a craft, and had immediate connection with the client,” Fish said. “No art gallery, no publisher, just me and the person for whom I was creating the art. I saw tattoos as having an ineluctable savor, providing a sign more permanent than almost anything else in life.”
Fish said she takes the tattoo process seriously because of her personal values.
“I’m really moral,” Fish said. “I believe I’m responsible for what I do in this life. If I’m putting a piece of art on [someone’s] back, it’s got to be good — I can’t have that bad karma. I do the best I can to be the agent of completion — people come to me with an idea, and I complete it.”
The great thing about tattoos is that each one has its own flavor — a personalized blend of artist and recipient. Sometimes, a third party inspires or draws a tattoo before it is even taken to the artist to be inked. Also the musculature of every human body varies enough that each tattoo is unlikely to ever be repeated.
“The canvas is constantly moving,” Fulbeck said.
Ali Obsorne, a second-year environmental studies major, said her tattoo placement was inspired by the nature of her design.
Romeo said she placed her tattoo because it simultaenously apppears surreal and concrete as it is placed on her body.
“It combined my love for art and the human body so it worked really well,” she said. “Also, it’s my art so I’m super close with it.”
For others, tattoos serve as daily reminders. Ally Miller, a third-year black studies major and education and LGBTQ studies minor, said her ink is an admonition to find the simple pleasures in life.
“In high school … our teacher assigned us a project called ‘Carpe Diem,’” Miller said. “It was really meaningful to me; I was going through a lot at the time. I clung to the project as the one thing that really kept me going — that I woke up excited about in the morning. When I got to college, I wanted a symbol to remind myself about everything I was going through and how amazing the projects made me feel.”
Some, like fourth-year communication major Angela Chandra who has an Ohm symbol on her side, see tattoos as a form of spiritual expression.
“The symbol itself stands for truth love and divinity, and the balance between the awakened state and the dream state and it also captures the sound of the universe,” she said. “I knew I wanted one for a really long time.”