Orthodoxies in this day and age are constantly being challenged. With that said, tattooing has experienced a surge in popularity and, as stigmas dismantle, those embracing body art have begun to transcend social distinction. Tattooing is taking on new and nuanced forms, both as an art of the purest form, and as a culture in constant flux. Tattooing has developed an adaptable purpose, which grants it the appreciation it deserves. Old tattoo types that were once used to identify group members in the military, gangs or biker clubs, are now being absorbed into a greater and more inclusive scene of tattooing that renders them more stylistic than exclusionary. That’s not to say that tattoos have reached a saturation point in this process of normalisation. Running parallel with an age of liberal global movements, tattoos act much like renaissance art: bridging generations and affecting new sensibilities.
The advent of social media has helped fuel this process. Potential clients from across the globe, and even those who prefer to admire tattoos from afar, have visual access to a tattooist’s studio, seeing finished works and new swatches daily. “Instagram tattoos” have emerged as a cultural genre in their own right. Countless tattoo artists have been using the popular digital space as a workshop. Artists can customise their own online space while communicating with those who see them, in a way artists in previous decades could never imagine.
This said, Instagram tattoo culture is complex and double-sided. While it has lowered entry levels for up-and-coming artists, it has also developed its own particular idiosyncrasies that can, at times, taint it with antagonism and ironic homogeneity. Some artists engage in public online feuds, often forcing clients to choose one artist over another. Among other issues, Instagram tattoo feeds often appear whitewashed and there seems to be little room for anything other than the dominant style.
Instagram is entirely responsible for the sustainability of my art practice
Currently on Instagram as @rip.sally, French-born, Canadian tattoo and multidisciplinary artist known as “sally” has worked both at home and in Europe. Growing up in Toronto, sally remembers seeing someone in a cafe with tattoos of designs they had never seen before: “That really resonated with me, for whatever reason. That was essentially my introduction to the artform.” They say they credit the platform for the success it has granted them: “[Instagram] is entirely responsible for the sustainability of my art practice. It has allowed me to develop a community of people who like to get tattooed by me consistently around the world. It entirely subverts the previous structure of having to introduce yourself [into] spaces in which you may not necessarily feel encouraged. That grants access to a lot of people who deserve to get tattooed and that maybe need tattooing.”
sally notes that Instagram has a similar potential to stifle aesthetic freedom, but says it hasn’t really had an affect on their own work: “I try to work very organically and freely with my Instagram, and that’s why you see my name on it change all the time, or I’ll disable it for a period of time or delete photos.” They claim that this is a way they can fight the homogenisation of Instagram tattoo culture.
Sally’s experiences as a tattoo artist have been inherently individualistic, which made the cultural conventions of tattooing feel discouraging and repressive. They note: “I went about it the regular way at the time, when you would have to go to a tattoo shop and enter a physical space, which in itself can be intimidating for a queer person or a person of different ethnicity than the majority. You have to try and instigate a relationship with people and decide if you want to work with them as an artist.” Yet even with this challenge, their desire to explore the culture and bring in their own style paved the way for their success, despite initial pushback.
Developing a unique and intimate relationship with the art is the primary focus of sally’s tattooing. This is how it truly began for them: “Addiction and alcoholism are part of my story. I made an effort to turn my life around. It was then that tattooing myself became one of the primary modalities I would use to feel like I had the opportunity to re-approach my identity, as a physical body as well as an intellectual, or spiritual or mental being.” It was a rediscovery of the self, as sally explains: “I was in a halfway house, and I just started to tattoo myself. There was no Youtube or Instagram, it was very much a process of trial and error. What I did learn was that it was forging a really intimate and profound relationship between my mind, body and spirit.”
For sally, tattooing is so much more than the way it is displayed in visual and virtual space. From the moment the art manifested into what it truly means for them, tattooing has been a means of becoming in touch with one’s self. Instagram serves as a tool to allow them to access and engage others to experience the same. It is the only reason they tattoo others, they say. “Primarily, for me, when other people started to see my work on my body and saying ‘That looks cool, could you give me one?’ I learned the incredible privilege and honour it is to have that effect on someone.”
When you get into the choreography of social media, it forces you to sell yourself to it
Another popular tattoo artist, who sells her artwork through Instagram, is Madame Buraka. Buraka was born in the Soviet Union. Currently practicing in Barcelona, clients have been travelling to wherever she is to work with her since her tattoo career began. Buraka’s cult following is overwhelmingly evident moments after clicking on her Instagram profile, @burakatattooflash. Buraka’s distinctive and consistent ultra-sharp blackwork has brought her much acclaim, evident in the sheer number of people who have one of her tattoos.
While Buraka’s cult following is very present online, she herself prefers to remain rather inconspicuous. Social media is one reason why: “I don’t really give a lot of information about myself, [so as] to keep the focus on my work. When you get into the choreography of social media, it forces you to sell yourself to it.” The extent of the effect social media has had on tattooing is something Buraka says she never expected, nor did she ever expect to become a tattoo artist. “I studied communication design”, she says. “My final thesis was called ‘Tattooing in the Digital Era”. I saw that tattooing was getting very big on social media, but I never could have imagined the [enormous] power of it, where it is nowadays.”
But she feels that social media has led to the loss of tattoo element ownership, as elements and trademarks are copied: “You need to be very clever with the impulses you give to social media. Especially now, when I am seeing the generations after me that are tattooing, it is just replication after replication. There is no information behind the tattoos anymore”, she explains.
Buraka also spoke about examining the graffiti-artist-turned-tattooist Fuzi in her thesis, to whom celebrities were approaching for ignorant tattoos in a way never before seen. It was part of how she herself began tattooing. “I did also for many years graffiti as a hobby. I was watching all this movement and I was like ‘Man, fuck! This is super interesting!’, but I never could imagine I would touch people’s skin. I got kind of pushed into it by many, many people.”
Now a tattooist in her own right, it is both the unique illustration she creates for a client and the experience with them that is paramount in her work. She explains that it’s “very important in the fundamental stage where your tattoo is made. I go crazy [if I] work in tattoo shop. You can’t really communicate right with your customers. All the magical things fall apart, which makes it super mainstream”. Privacy is key for Buraka. She feels it makes the tattoo experience more valuable. She remarks: “The more people who are included, the more we are actors. People are not opening themselves up. If you create this private environment, everybody feels like a friend.”
As with many artists who work in private environments, Buraka’s costs are sometimes high. Yet since she describes herself as “an artist who works with the medium of tattooing”, she is comfortable charging “like an artist”. This helps to create a filter effect on clients, an indispensable part of the process that ensures clients want the tattoo because it means a lot to them, not because it is trendy. “People are obsessed with the rose I’m doing.”
She adds: “If you want my work because it is supreme, I can’t fuck with it. I don’t feel like you are related to it.”
Now working in Barcelona, Buraka says that it was there, in 2013, people first started getting her illustrations tattooed on them. A broke student, Buraka had decided to try tattooing for the first time. From there, it snowballed. Those illustrations, particularly her depiction of a girl, have now become her trademark. “I created a pin-up for my century. If you want to speak about a pin-up that boys and girls are getting, or gays and rappers are getting – it is this girl. She has a lot of power.”
While she enjoys tattooing, Buraka finds it can be monotonous, and she busies herself with other projects. Encompassing much of what her tattoo art attempts to depict, Buraka’s photography project Cold Romance is an exploration of female empowerment, the temporary nature of relationships and their loss of value. Creating something permanent and meaningful is what Buraka is all about, and she hopes that she is someone young female artists can look up to.
Rory Dowling, a proprietor of Instagram tattoos, has two heavy blackwork tattoos. This is maybe controversial, however, as the two artists who designed them, Johnny Gloom and Louis Loveless, are online enemies. They broadcasted their relationship on Instagram, even when they broke up. The pair have obvious tattoos done by one another, and anyone who knows their work, knows their history. Dowling in fact notes: “I’d be surprised if [other] tattoo artists [had] the background and conflict of Johnny Gloom and Louis Loveless. I’ve heard stories from both sides, as well as a lot of rumours about them.”
But for Dowling, his tattoos are a mix of self-expression and cultural connection. This conflict didn’t hold him back: “I’ve always been a fan of the sort of high-contrast black work that Johnny and Louis are renowned for. Their simplicity and boldness are what made me choose them. I travelled to Berlin to meet Louis and Paris to meet Johnny.”
For Dowling, the high cost of Instagram tattoos is not a deterrent. It adds to the experience. In fact, he says that there is broad consensus that cheaper tattoos are much more regretted than the more expensive ones. “Saving €300 from working part time around college takes time, and that time let me choose artists and designs that I’m happy with. The main reason I like getting tattoos off artists with big-name followings is for the confidence I have in them. I think it’s worth the extra few quid knowing you’re in good hands.”
With some Instagram tattooists, creating the design is an intimate experience between artist and client. This is very much how Dowling’s tattoos came to be. He said that the “reasoning” behind his Nike TN trainer tattoo was not that “deep”: “I just fucking love TNs.” The house arrest bracelet tattooed beside it was Loveless’s own idea. “When I got to Berlin he explained to me that he was wearing TNs when he cut off his own house arrest bracelet to flee England. It seemed quite fitting to have a piece of his story on my leg.” Dowling also said that Loveless agreed to do it for free, so it was hardly a difficult decision.
The main reason I like getting tattoos off artists with big-name followings is for the confidence I have in them
Dowling’s experience with Loveless is just as memorable as the tattoo itself. Loveless first left Dowling waiting outside his apartment while he was live on Instagram broadcasting his self-mutilation. He then left his studio during Dowling’s sitting to go to a club, later returning to finish the tattoo. “The experience was a bit unsettling at first, but once you get to know his sense of humour and work ethic it becomes enjoyable. He used wine to sterilise the tattoo and then proceeded to lick an amalgamation of blood, ink and wine off my leg after confirming I didn’t have herpes. He’s not for the faint hearted, but his tattoos aren’t either and it’s almost comforting to know that he lives the life that his art portrays.”
Dowling explains that it is Johnny Gloom’s talent for incorporating weight and depth into her tattoos, with raw emotion, that makes her stand out. “The design she did for me is of a woman’s face with a single tear. It’s a design that has a lot of personal significance to me and a lot of thought went into it.” Despite her somewhat manic online presence, Dowling says, “I was pleasantly surprised by Johnny’s professionalism and work ethic. She did the tattoo in her apartment but it was set up exactly like a professional shop should be. She finished my tattoo and one other within 40 minutes.” Dowling also recalls the artist even let him play with her dog after getting the tattoo.
The introduction of new pathways to connect with potential clients has opened the world of tattoo artists and their art. No longer is it necessary to go into a shop to sit in line with burly and unfriendly men. Artists can practice wherever they like, and clients are able to peruse the parlours of their favourite artists without having to leave the comfort of their home. This has allowed artists to break from the traditional roles of their profession and really develop their own styles and brands, regardless of how weird their style is.