Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Tattooing in the Age of Instagram

I wonder how many fellow tattooers stop and ask themselves from time to time why exactly they tattoo.  A customer asked me exactly this question recently and I found myself stymied for a reply.  I started tattooing as a teenager and before that as an adolescent I was completely fascinated by tattoos.  I couldn't imagine my life without having tattoos and my one and only career has been giving tattoos but I fail to remember where my life long passion was first seeded.

Sure, there's anecdotes in my life from early exposure to tattooing.  When I was a small lad I sat playing in the dirt in front of my house when a pack of frightening bikers walked by, one shirtless with a giant cobra tattooed on his belly.  Even as a little kid I thought that was the most bitching fucking thing I'd ever seen in my whole nine year old life.  But by then I was already up late at night, under my covers drawing snakes and daggers with a flashlight tucked under my chin, trying to covertly defy my "lights out" parental bedtime ordinance. 

A tattoo is a contract between three people; the client; the artist and the observer.  Some tattoos are made to be hidden and deeply personal, only to be exposed to a selected audience at the discretion of the wearer.  Other tattoos are bold, public statements and then there's a sliding scale between those two points.

With the omniscient presence of social media every tattoo now made gets placed on the alter of sacrifice of scrutiny via Instagram. 

I live in San Francisco.  The other night I stood in front of the Twitter corporate world headquarters on Market Street and marvelled over how this one innocuous looking office tower and the mechanizations within it have completely changed the world.  Governments are overthrown because of grass roots political organization via one hundred and forty character tweets.  The first line of government control over popular uprisings is to cut off their citizens connection to Twitter and Facebook, that's just how scared institutional power is of social connectivity.

My fear is that Instagram is adulterating our motivations for why we tattoo.

Make no mistake about it, I think Instagram is a fantastic tool for artists and I am a regular, almost daily user.  I love being able to post a photo of a newly minted tattoo to my feed and share it with my peers.  I also love being able to see what everyone else's daily tattooing output looks like.  It's magical being able to see what some of my favourite tattooers are doing the moment they finish tattooing.  But are we tattooing to make our clients happy or are we tattooing just for likes and for popularity points from our online followers?

If we tattoo for internet popularity will that lead to any sort of happiness or satisfaction with ourselves and our work?  How many 'likes', followers or fans is enough to legitimize our art and who we are as artists?  How much thought and energy are you pouring in to your sense of self worth based on the number of followers you have?  So many conversations between tattooers these days is bragging or commiserating about how many likes or lack of likes their latest tattoos got on Instagram, not how happy the client was or how satisfied you were with your latest piece.

I would argue that finding more and more followers and fans is actually just frosting and not the cake we're hungry for.  The cake is finding a core group actual human beings who love the work you do in the real life meat space world and nurturing those client relationships face to face using your art, abilities and personality rather than tattooing for intangible internet points.

I enjoy using Instagram and Facebook to share my work because I love being a contributing part of a greater community.  I just wish that there was an option within the app to turn off the like button.  Tattooing for me is about creativity, tradition and innovation, not competition, appropriation and popularity.  

“Work for a cause, not for applause. Live life to express, not to impress. Don’t strive to make your presence noticed just make your absence felt.” – Unknown

Yours Truly,

Adam Sky,
Rose Gold's Tattoo
San Francisco, California

Instagram @ adamskytattoos


  1. As a History/English teacher, I don't know a whole lot about tattooing, but I do share your sentiment. Art, whether it be visual, performance, literary or musical has always invited comparison and competition. And while overexposure and commercialization can certainly cheapen the expressive aspect of an art or cause great work to get lost in all the noise. (As a writer, I sometimes worry that the 400 novel I've been working on for years will never get published or read in this impatient 120 characters or less world.) But exposure also means accessibility. A decade ago, I didn't realize the creativity, artistry, and skill that went into tattooing, but with its widespread exposure primarily through social media and the internet, I've been able to view, learn, and more fully appreciate this artistic medium. So I guess it's a double-edged sword, but in some ways, while things change, they stay the same because art in every generation has made its audience think, question and argue. But it inspires communication, and that's something.

  2. I have always been interested in learning why people get tattoos and go into that as a profession. This blog was super informative and gave me a another point of view and helped me understand a lot more why people do it. There are so many different reasons why people get tattoos, either for popularity or to remember something or to prove something.