In 1978 I was curating an exhibit of tattoo art at a now defunct storefront gallery in Chicago. In the course of reading what little (at that time) I could find about the subject, I came across a book published in 1932 titled Tattoo: "secrets of a strange art as practiced by natives of the United States". It's author Albert Parry wrote, "Tattooing is mostly the recording of dreams, whether or not the tattooed are consciously aware of it." There were three tattoo shops listed in the (print only) yellow pages within the city limits.
The show introduced me to George Klauba - a Chicago painter, sculptor and former tattooist whose work for the exhibit explored the pan-cultural history of tattooing, its connection to the psyche in the arts of warfare, healing, propitiation of natural forces, and spiritual growth. And also "Blubak" - an eccentric, retired merchant marine with a half-century of skin art, acquired in ports around the world. I learned the ancient Egyptians, Britons, and peoples of the Americas all practiced tattooing and that evidence in Cro-Magnon burial sites posited the tattoo as our species' first art. I was hooked.
Over the next 20 years, I traveled throughout the United States and Canada photographically documenting tattoo subculture as it underwent a sea change, transformed as an infusion of new, art school-trained tattooists from diverse backgrounds, globally distributed publications and later the internet propelled the business from its previous marginalized state to the mainstream. As it evolved, the emphasis for the project shifted to photographing and recording oral histories of tattoo artists and collectors whose commitment to the art began in the decades of its disrepute prior to the 1970's. The goal was to document as much of the history of the medium and as many of its principals as time allowed. The last work for the project was done in the Spring of 1998 at the first tattoo convention ever held in New York City, finally legalizing tattooing and ending a ban put into effect during a hepatitis scare in the 1930s. This modest selection of work represents a small part.
September 22, 2012
Most contemporary photos of tattoos feed the fad machine of the glossy periodicals - reducing the works to a component in the global electronic media glut, sound bites for the skin. This is ironic considering tattooing's permanence and necessary quality of commitment. In contrast to this disposable jump cut sensibility, Jeff Crisman's photos are complete psychological portraits. They place the person in context with his or her tattoos, usually in their native habitat. Moreover, the subjects are older, experienced, and have lived a life in their suit of skin pictures, in contrast to the usual young and trendy posers. It is this sense of the weight of experience and individual lifestyles shaped by being tattooed and doing tattoos that permeates Crisman's work with stillness, dignity, and strangeness. He is capturing the dream and reality of this odd art. The are among the best photographs of this very difficult and elusive subject that I have ever seen.
Donald Edward Hardy
Honolulu, August 1994