Sometimes a bad tattoo is harder to forget than a beautiful tattoo is to remember. Tattoos are risky, not necessarily because of the intense physical pain they can produce, but because of their permanence. We are constantly bombarded with examples of horrendously butchered tattoos, both in person and online. Since neither our minds nor the internet will allow us to forget the mistakes that have been left on people’s skin, we often forget that a tattooist is a genuine artist. When we think about art, we think about the intentionality with which it was produced and the unadulterated will an artist has to make the piece. The pieces that artists put out are, in our minds, simply not mistakes (although the creative process is replete with happy accidents of which the viewers are not necessarily aware). Artists of different mediums can withhold or alter any piece they think is subpar, whereas the tattoo artist’s work is limitedly alterable and on display any time someone’s skin is.
Coupled with the constant exposure of their mistakes, tattooists almost always work on commission. They are seldom ever given the freedom to flesh out (all puns intended) their own ideas fully on the client’s skin. Only when an artist has distinguished themselves and amassed a following can they begin to tattoo more freely. The client provides the content or ideas that are to be rendered, and the tattoo artist modifies these ideas in order to form an aesthetically pleasing tattoo. Since tattoos are commissioned art, many people falsely think of the artists as human copy machines, skillful hands directed by an empty mind filled with the requests of others.
With the increasing normalization and popularity of tattoos, giving artists the clientele necessary to experiment, develop and diversify in new styles of tattooing, more people are beginning to recognize the legitimacy of the tattoo artist as an actual artist. From the basis of traditional tattooing, a plethora of new styles have evolved: the cartoonish new school, neo-traditional, watercolor, geometric, trash polka, hyperrealism, biomechanical and dozens of other categories, sub-categories and cross-sections. This diversification, which displays the tattooists’ creative, flexible and technical prowess, confirms their identities as artists. The specificity of style is what allows these artists to make a name for themselves. Tattoo artist Kelly Doty has done this exceptionally well.
Kelly Doty’s tattoo style is a specific niche in the new school of tattooing. New-school tattoos developed because of advancement in tattooing equipment. In traditional tattooing (old-school), artists limited the color palette and shaded only two-dimensionally meaning they lacked soft, rounded shadows. With these new developments, however, any color imaginable can now be laid into the skin and images can be made to look like stickers slapped onto the skin with the use of three-dimensional shading. Therefore, new school artists make use of vibrant and often unnatural colors, thick lines and developed shading. Although style and subject matter varies greatly in new school, quite often it centers on imaginative figures with big eyes and other cartoony, graphic or graffiti-esque elements.
New-school tattoos have the propensity to become loud, bizarre and grotesque. Yet Kelly Doty’s tattoos retain the core aspects of new school and develop the quirky, colorful and strange qualities that develop as a result of the style into some beautifully intricate and elegant tattoos. She combines new school with the art movement of pop surrealism, a movement that originated from the West Coast with artists like Mark Ryden, Marion Peck, Mariko Mori, Robert Williams and others. Pop surrealism also features a wide gradient of styles and subject matter but maintains a few consistencies. In pop surrealism (or low brow) artwork, the dreamy, subconscious and decontextualized nature of surrealism is combined with the shallow symbols, motifs and characters associated with modern pop culture. It’s a juxtaposition that creates great unrest, with the subconscious flow of surrealism battering against the very conscious, controlled and groomed nature of consumerist and popular culture. The pop culture elements seem to bring an ingenuine, contrived and corrupted element to that which we hold sacred to ourselves — the subconscious and the dreams that actually show our true selves.
This art movement, coupled with this specific genre of tattooing, has allowed Doty to craft unique tattoos and pieces of art. With the juxtaposition pop surrealism supplies, Doty’s tattoos become eerie and uncomfortable but aesthetically pleasing. The bold colors and impishly cartoony characters of new-school complement the pop culture component of pop surrealism, augmenting the disparity between the manufactured image and the uncontrived dreams that it contains. The results include a glass-eyed doll, a Wednesday Addams lookalike and a poorly treated stuffed animal — essentially anything dark and gothic.
Kelly Doty’s work is so specific and technical that her validity as an artist cannot be denied. She proves that skin is just another medium on which artists may choose to work on. Doty herself switches between skin and paper for mediums. She and two other artists, Britt Whitman and Jess Brown, currently run a tattoo parlor in Salem, Massachusetts called “Helheim Gallery,” which functions simultaneously as an art gallery simultaneously displaying their work and guest artists’ works. From Helheim, one can either get a gorgeous, custom tattoo or a beautiful piece of original artwork. The duality of this parlor helps validate tattooing as an art form by placing it alongside more traditional mediums and conceptions of art.