Monday, 11 August 2014

Time: Tattoo Art Today at Somerset House

I made the most of Saturday morning's beautiful weather by getting up early and heading to Somerset House to see Time: Tattoo Art Today – yet another fantastic exhibition with free admission. It comprises work by 70 of the world's most influential tattoo artists, each commissioned to create a unique piece of work on the theme of 'Time', using any medium they liked apart from their usual canvas – skin.

Tattoo art has a fascinating history, reportedly dating back to Neolithic times. In western society it has evolved from something that was typically associated with the lower and even criminal classes, to an integral part of contemporary culture, so it's great to see some of the tattoo world's finest being recognised in this way.

© Kurt Wiscombe

I was immediately struck by just how incredibly talented these artists are. It’s easy to forget that first and foremost they are just that, artists. Tattooing is their chosen profession but, while they might spend the majority of their time creating art on the human body, they can also produce oil paintings to rival those in the National Gallery and interpret a brief like 'Time' with unrivalled creativity.

Naturally the theme lends itself to ideas of life and death, and many iconic symbols prevalent in the tattoo world are utilised, from skulls and clocks, to flower blossoms and the female form. The materials used are diverse and include various types of painting, bronze sculpture and mixed media pieces.

Many well-known names have contributed to the exhibition, including Don Ed Hardy, Mr Cartoon and my personal favourites Ami James and Chris Garver (Miami Ink anyone?), and while it would be hard to pick out favourites, here are a few I particularly wanted to mention.

© Rose Hardy

Rouge by Rose Hardy
This is such a beautiful interpretation of the theme, with the constant life-cycle of flowers represented in acrylic and watercolour, from buds and blossoms to the wilted petals. I love how the vibrant colours in the roses contrast with the monochrome shades of the classic pin-up girl’s eye makeup. The composition and execution are equally impressive.

© Chris Garver

Indigo Dragons by Chris Garver
The body is a natural canvas for a tattoo artist and I love that Chris Garver chose to illustrate a mannequin in this way. The use of blue on white for Chinese dragons is very reminiscent of the country's traditional blue and white porcelain, dating back to the 9th century.

© Shawn Barber
Kim Saigh at work, with Jamie Kompon by Shawn Barber
Kim Saigh chose to illustrate girlfriend (and fellow tattoo artist) Kim Saigh at work on former professional hockey player Jamie Kompon. Barber spent years documenting contemporary tattoo culture before picking up the tattoo machine himself, and he taught drawing and painting at art schools for over a decade. The multiple representations of Kim and Jamie illustrate the passing of time in what, as anyone with a tattoo will know, can often be a very lengthy process!

© Alex Binnie

Self Portrait by Alex Binnie
Tattoo artist and printmaker, Alex Binnie, has been tattooing since the 80s and established one of the first custom tattoo shops in London. I love this graphic self portrait showing both the inside and outside of himself in two distinct halves. Such a simple but effective piece.

Time: Tattoo Art Today is a fantastic exhibition and well worth a visit. I would have liked a bit of information about the thought process behind each piece, because it's something that always interests me, however, as I have come to expect from Somerset House, it is an incredibly well thought out exhibition. Tattoos tend to divide opinion (possibly because like all art forms, their creators range considerably in terms of talent), so an exhibition like this is a fantastic reminder of the abilities of the cream of the crop – creative, innovative and bound to leave an impression.

Time: Tattoo Art Today is at the Embankment Galleries, South Wing at Somerset House until 5 October 2014. For more information visit

A beautiful sunny morning at Somerset House

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