It’s a practice that dates back thousands of years – from the healing dots on Otzi the Iceman, to the status symbols on tribal populations, to the romantic iconography adorning sailors of the 19th Century, to the gang culture of the 20th Century.

Tattoos were, according to Schiffmacher and Riemschneider, authors of 1000 Tattoos, “mainly associated with those belonging to a lower social class – criminals, sailors, whores, soldiers, adventurers, perverts and the like – and at the other end of the scale with the eccentrics of high society, the rich and aristocratic.”

In recent times though, there has been an explosion of inking, with tattoos taking on a whole new cultural significance, crossing social and sexual divides to become a mainstream part of global and Western fashion.

Scores of celebrities have turned to tattoos to ‘do the talking’, so to speak, with fans in turn mimicking their idols by sporting a whole host of squiggles and doodles on their bodies, giving rise to a generation adorned with images of stars, dolphins, birds and flowers among other things.

As such, tattoos are no longer emblems of storytelling or heritage, rather they’re the latest fashion accessory.

Epping Forest Guardian:

By Morg Armeni

“It’s something I feel really conflicted about. Whether tattoos should be symbols for the sake of being symbols, or they should be artworks, created by artists to tell stories,” says tattoo artist Morg Armeni.

We’re standing in the foyer of Somerset House in The Strand, at the entrance of a new exhibition, Time: Tattoo Art Today.

Morg, who sports heavily tattooed arms and legs, is one of the exhibiting artists – she’s created a stunning oil on canvas drawing of Boticellli-esque woman, a Venus, surrounded by Kahlo-esque symbolism.

The show features works by 69 of the world’s most influential tattoo artists including the celebrated Don Ed Hardy. Each has showcased their skills by creating works of art especially for the show, themed on Time.

Epping Forest Guardian:

By Don Ed Hardy

Organisers Miki Vialetto and Claudia de Sabe, both tattoo artists and both exhibiting in the show, are hoping to educate people when it comes to tattoos, that is, that there’s more to tattoo art than simplistic symbols and tramp stamps.


Epping Forest Guardian:

By Claudia De Sabe

“That’s the thing,” stresses Claudia later, as we walk around the exhibition. “Celebrities with tattoos have a lot to answer for. There are artists in this show whose names are recognisable because they’ve tattooed celebrities. A lot of the time these stars don’t take the advice of the tattooist, they are determined to have a design that may not suit them and in the end that tattooist becomes associated with a terrible design. When the reality is that most of them are fine artists, they create wonderful art, clients just need to listen.”

It’s clear from the exhibition that tattooists are, in their own right, artists.

“Many tattooers believe tattooing is a craft, which should look a certain way and not be arty at all,” says Claudia. “Art has its own styles and artists, who must find a daily balance between their ideas and their customers’ requests. It is this daily battle that makes tattooers more than craftsmen.

“Every day, we are commissioned to do designs which go under people’s skin and through practice and study, those designs can become unique.

“But is tattooing cheaper or less worthy of attention just because it is blood rather than marble or oil paint? The only difference between the work of the masters and ours is that tattoos will cease to exist when owners die, which is fitting in a society where everything is disposable.

“Tattoo art has become much more complex than simply choosing a design and inking it onto the body.

“It is a reflection of society in its complexity and division into tribes – it also fulfils the definition of art. Consider art movements like graffiti – just like that, tattoos today are part of everybody’s lives and are there to be appreciated.

“Tattoo art is about taking control and demanding our individuality back.

“Skin has become a medium, and artists are free to express their creativity, transforming the human into a work of art.”

Time: Tattoo Art Today is at Somerset House, The Strand, WC2, until October 5. Details: