Help Desk

Help Desk: With Intent

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is co-sponsored by

Your counselor, hard at work.

How important is it to consider the intent of an artist when viewing his or her work?

Your position on this matter depends on how you feel about the artist’s desire for a particular expression versus your own powers of interpretation. On one hand, we might wish to honor—or at least consider—the stated intentions of the artist when viewing the work, even if only to see how it matches up against our own perception. On the other hand, “Works of the imagination are sites of interpretation,” claims artist David Robbins in his book Concrete Comedy. “Indeed they are made in order to be interpreted; art is not simply a matter of ‘appreciation,’ of ‘understanding the artist’s intentions.’ If we accept that the spectator completes the work, then it follows that the audience for imaginative works may interpret them with the same freedom and intensity that informed their creation. Nothing can and should prevent us from offering imaginative interpretations of works of the imagination, since every individual’s relation to their own imagination is sacred—more sacred, even, then is respecting an artist’s intentions. The idea that certain interpretations must be cordoned off and others reinforced without challenge…is a position finally impossible to defend. To do so is to violate an essential principle of human history.”

Sometimes I think a former professor had the last word on pointing out the limits of artistic intent when he asked, “Given how very little most people really know about themselves, why should we trust their stated intentions?”

Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971. Documentation of performance.

Do you think that tattooing/tattoo derived imagery (drawings, flash, etc) is a valid form of contemporary art? Would you view it as a fine art, an occupation, or a mixture of both? Do you think a hierarchy of importance should be in place when talking about contemporary art and its applications?

This is not exactly my area of expertise, but thankfully I found just the person to answer your query: Dan Gilsdorf, who has been tattooing professionally for 20 years, agreed to guest-write the opinions below. He also has a professional career in the fine arts, and so was uniquely qualified to opine on both tattooing and contemporary art.

I ought to make a couple of clarifications before diving into an answer. I’m going to assume that by “tattooing” you mean as it’s practiced conventionally in the U.S. and other developed countries—that is to say a professionalized activity that takes place in a business context and provides, to a greater or lesser extent, a living in the economic sense. Let me also state that art is a term that gets thrown around pretty loosely and is often misapplied to anything that is done in a highly skilled manner, such as graphic design, furniture making, plumbing, etc. For our purposes here, let’s agree not to use the term ‘art’ as a value judgment (either positive or negative) and let’s concede that a great plumber is best and most suitably appreciated for his or her greatness as a plumber, not as a plumbing artist. After all, who of us would really want our toilet to subvert the dominant conceptual paradigm?

Chris Burden, L.A.P.D. Uniform, 1994. Fabric, leather, wood, metal & plastic, 88 x 72 x 6 inches (223.5 x 182.9 x 15.2 cm) Ed. of 30

So, on to your first question about the validity of tattooing as a form of contemporary art. One of the great features of postmodernity is that there are no invalid forms of contemporary art. An artist’s work can take on any form whatsoever, and that form can change at any time and to any extent. Indeed, artwork need not take a “form” at all, as seen in the examples of conceptualism and social practice. The flip side of this principle is that there are no forms whose validity as contemporary art is a given. Painting a wall and doing a painting on a wall are essentially the same thing, yet we categorize them differently based on subtle distinctions such as context, intent, etc.

Chris Burden, Relic from Jaizu, 1972. Glasses in acrylic box, 7-3/8 x 10-1/4 x 8-1/4 inches (18.7 x 26 x 21 cm)

The same holds true for tattooing. Many artists have utilized tattooing and tattoo imagery with the intent to create contemporary art and have presented their work within a fine arts context. (Santiago Sierra, Spider Webb, Tony Fitzpatrick, Shelley Jackson, Dr. Lakra and Don Ed Hardy are examples) However, this does not mean that all tattooing qualifies as contemporary art. Likewise, a lot of this kind of work, great art though it may be, doesn’t really make good tattoos.

Unlike the examples above, the vast majority of tattoos in the world are made according to the specifications of the people wearing them, that is, the customers. In this way, most tattooing has more in common with a design service than with contemporary art. Of course, as with any design service there are considerations of style, and customers will choose tattooists based on the style of their work, but stylistic input doesn’t make it art, at least as far as the tattooist is concerned. Therefore, if you’re considering taking up tattooing as means to express yourself artistically, I’d suggest finding another medium; one that doesn’t bleed, squirm, or make off-the-wall design requests that you find to be in horrible taste.

Chris Burden, Three Ghost Ships, 1991. Sailboats, one with solar panel and electronic components; 3 boats: 6-1/2 x 6-1/2 x 15-1/2 feet each sailboat hull. Installation at Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills.

As for tattoo imagery, the flash designs drawn or painted by tattooists are typically intended to be sold individually as tattoos and are akin to a catalogue of available motifs. Many tattooists make and sell paintings, drawings, prints, and the like without necessarily intending that they end up on someone’s skin, but these tend to be shown and marketed to a tattoo audience rather than a fine arts audience. Granted there is significant potential overlap in these two audiences but, generally speaking, they are quite dissimilar in their tastes and expectations.

Which brings us to hierarchies. Hierarchies abound in the arts, for better or worse. Most of us would agree that work of higher quality should be regarded above work of lower quality, but what constitutes a quality work of art turns out to be remarkably subjective. In tattooing, the standards of quality are much simpler; if the customer likes his or her tattoo, and is happy with it, then mission accomplished. It doesn’t really matter what the tattooist, the tattoo community, or anybody else thinks about it, and that’s pretty much the end of the story in my opinion. But then there is the question of hierarchy in a more general sense; is tattooing “lower” than contemporary art? Not surprisingly, it depends on whom you ask and how they valuate such things. It’s a little like comparing ice hockey to basketball. They’re not without their similarities but they are different games. The good news is that you can appreciate both for what they are. It’s perfectly acceptable to love art and to love tattoos equally and simultaneously.