Some 150 paying customers showed up for the Museum of Contemporary Art’s conversation with tattoo artist Amanda Wachob and museum director Adam Lerner to accompany the show, “Tattoo This.”
It was a cold night so few tattoos were in plain sight. But it was clear from their questions that the crowd of artists, art students and fans at the Holiday Events Center in Denver’s Highland neighborhood knew art history, ink and Wachob’s work.
Wachob, considered a pioneer in tat circles, uses a tattoo machine and ink to create art on human bodies, but also on canvas, paper, silk, fruit and leather.
The point for Lerner is that Wachob has elevated her style from traditional, outlined ink pictures on skin to a more organic, free-flowing art form.
Beyond numerous gallery exhibitions, Wachob has shown at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York and the New York Historical Society, and done projects with the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She lives and works in Brooklyn.
The Denver show, through May 26 at MCA, offers an assortment of her canvases, photographs, leather (the whole side of a cow) and a room lined with tattooed lemons. Visitors gawk, especially on days when Wachob, as artist in residence, tattoos volunteers in a corner of the gallery surrounded by her wall-sized canvases.
One observer at MCA confided, “I’ve heard the watercolor-looking ones don’t age very well on skin.” Wachob gets that a lot.
The thin, red-haired, silver-booted artist in a chartreuse dress grew up in Buffalo, New York. There she frequented the Albright Knox Museum, where she particularly admired works by Clyfford Still (Albright Knox has the world’s second largest collection of Still’s works. The largest is in Denver.)
She’s come full circle, in a way, scheduled to tattoo live as artist in residence at Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum in April. Influences of abstract expressionist painters, like Still, are evident in her work.
Wachob got a fine art photography degree from the State University of New York at Purchase, then fell into an apprenticeship at a tattoo shop. There, besides mopping floors and cleaning toilets, she was taught the strict rules of traditional tattooing: start with a black outline, always work dark to light. “It was pounded into my head as an apprentice,” she told the crowd. “It didn’t make sense to me to turn it into a cartoon when people wanted something photo-realistic.”
She started making pop surrealist paintings, using photo collages from old women’s magazines. “My painting influenced how I was doing tattooing.”
In 2008, she launched a unique tattoo style incorporating brushstrokes, washes, paint splatters and spills, commonly referred to as a watercolor technique. At that point, she said, she realized “tattooing can be used to say things about the world, like painting.”
It is Lerner’s contention that Wachob not only “advances tattooing as an autonomous art form but also brings the medium into closer dialogue with the wider domain of art.” The outgoing museum director who is due to leave in June after a 10-year tenure that saw MCA grow in size and stature, said Wachob’s work feels organic.
Is it a gimmick? Any prejudice a viewer may have about tattoos— any vintage notion of sailors with girlfriend’s names etched on their arms— melts away as Wachob talks. She makes a convincing case.
“People would say, it looks like a watercolor! The style was leaving the black outline out, which was taboo in the industry.” (The industry has not been kind, she acknowledged.)
Next, instead of doing tattoos freehand, “I made a painting first, so there were no surprises. It was a study.” Several of these studies are included in the MCA exhibition.
It was at that point that she moved on to fruit, starting with pomegranates.
In 2014, while researching surrealist techniques, notably Max Ernst’s Rorschach patterns, she adopted a marbled style with brushstrokes. “Essentially I was multitasking,” she explained, putting ink on paper, photographing it, taking a section and photographing that, then inking that as a tat.”
“So it was third-generation,” Lerner said, noting this process led to the large canvases that “sold me on an innovation in art-making. It felt to me completely at home in the field of contemporary art.”
At which point Wachob delivered the cheeky zing of the evening: “Is that because it’s a canvas?”
Is a tattoo an act of art or commerce?
Busted. The audience of knowing tattoo fans laughed and groaned. She had just hit on the tension surrounding the entire undertaking — is a tattoo essentially a commodity or is it art? When does a technique rooted in commerce become an innovation worthy of the title of fine art?
The crowd squirmed. At that moment, the tension was palpable — a contemporary art museum and a traditionally lowbrow, storefront form of expression joined forces, but was it because of the canvas, a rectangle, suitable for framing? Lerner seemed to acknowledge the bias. That is what sold him.
It’s an inevitable sticking point. Think of it this way: Wachob acknowledged that people sometimes ask for more blue as they’re being tattooed. And tattoo artists comply. Nobody would suggest to the painter of a wall-sized canvas, like Ernst, Miro or Still, that the painting needs more blue. Tattoos are still most often a financial transaction, up to the wearer.
With help from slides, the pair chronicled Wachob’s other innovations in abstraction — the Joan Miro-inspired Talismanic evil eyes, the tats on lemons redrawn from antique lace, the data maps of tats charting time and voltage from the tat machine, giving visual representation to “untapped ephemeral information,” which Wachob created with a neuroscientist friend.
Finally, she talked about her whimsical laser removal tat, a portrait of Luke Skywalker with lasers. “It took five years to find somebody” who let her etch that one on his body. Another, a bleeding Jesus, is “looking at blood in a conceptual way,” since poking holes in human skin tends to lead in a bloody direction.
“There’s still a lot that hasn’t been explored in tattooing,” she said.
The first question from the audience is one Wachob expects. Don’t the watercolor-style tattoos fade more than traditional black-outline tattoos?
“All tattoos age and fade and get mushy over time,” Wachob said. Because the ink is a foreign substance, “our body is trying to get rid of it immediately.” Observing the tats on her legs, some of which she did herself, she said, “a lot of work on me looks softer, more painterly” as time goes by.
Ultimately, she said, tattoos on mortals are temporary. Impermanence is built into the medium.
But, she said, “I’d like the canvases to hang around.”
“Amanda Wachob: Tattoo This” is on view through May 26 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, 1485 Delgany St., Denver. The Clyfford Still Museum, 1250 Bannock St., Denver, will host a public event as part of her residency: “One Painting at a Time: Amanda Wachob,” April 26 at 6:30 p.m.
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