The neatly arranged collages of frames that fill the walls of the Cesar Chavez Student Center Art Gallery starkly contrast the bold, vivid designs that threaten to explode out of them.
In styles perhaps more recognizable on skin than paper, every painting, drawing, photograph and sculpture in the Ship-Shape! exhibit was created by a local tattoo artist. San Francisco is a “bubble” of general acceptance when it comes to body art, according to Marie McCarthy of Rose Gold’s Tattoo & Piercing. Having encountered hidden and nonexistent tattoo cultures elsewhere, McCarthy knows there’s still a message to send.
“(In Japan) there’s a very strong tattoo culture, but no one ever shows their tattoos in public because it kind of is more associated with the underground,” she said. “So I think coming from the culture like that, it might be interesting to see that in a gallery setting.”
The display of tattoo art in a school gallery is a nudge to those who may not consider tattoos to be high-quality artistry; a small bit of stigma still remains. Despite the gallery’s original call for sketches on tracing paper, artists insisted on submitting completed pieces to express their level and variety of skill.
“We thought it was important to show that a lot of tattoo artists are fine artists as well,” McCarthy said. It’s a fact sometimes forgotten in the business of tattoo artistry, she said.
The emergence of more high-caliber tattoo artists over the years and her own fascination with the medium were factors that drove the Student Center Art Gallery manager Carolyn Ho to coordinate this exhibit.
“There’s something about having tattoo art on campus that makes it a little risqué,” she said. “I think tattoos are still associated with, to conservative people, like bike gangs or junkies or something like that. And I think that’s totally changed now with the younger people. It’s something that I think is universally hip.”
The gallery is a mix of the stylistic themes of “Old School” and “New Skool” that show the combination of classic sailor designs, as popularized by Sailor Jerry (Norman Keith Collins) in the 1930s and ’40s, and newer, more intricate designs. The two styles don’t battle each other on the gallery walls, but instead have come together to highlight the merits of both techniques.
“It’s pretty subjective at this point,” said Ben Matthews, an artist from Rose Gold’s. “New Skool kind of has a basis in graffiti. (Old School style) is very simple; there’s not a lot of shading, very bold lines. In the last 15 years, people merged the two into old-new school.”
Surprisingly, neither Ho nor any of the staff at the gallery have tattoos of their own. But the interest and appreciation for the art among them has only been ignited by the work they’ve put into the exhibit.
“The whole time we’ve been doing this show, I’ve been thinking about what I would get as a tattoo,” said Janna Alfred, a second year studio art major who began working at the gallery this summer. “It’s just something that’s always been on my mind, and even more so now that we’re seeing the best of the best shops in San Francisco.”
This is the type of reaction Ho hopes the exhibit will invoke in gallery visitors who don’t have any tattoos and may be unsure of their feelings toward such an intimate and permanent art form.
Though hopeful for positive reception, Ho and her staff were met with some resistance, but not from who they expected. A few shops invited to participate showed skepticism and ultimately declined. Joe Paul, an artist at One Shot Tattoo, couldn’t imagine why local artists would flat-out refuse to display their work at a college gallery.
“We get a lot of clientele from the colleges,” he said. “Why not share our artwork with them? It’s elementary, really.”
Rejections were few, however, as many shops were eager to educate the public and show that tattoos can be fine artistry as well.
“Most shops have well-versed artists,” Paul said. “There’s been a great surge in quality.”
Ho is striving to generate new interest in the gallery while also getting the names of local artists out to the community by bringing this high-quality art to the campus.
“For us, the main goal was to make tattoo art accessible,” McCarthy said. “Especially because the student body is really interested, so we try to reach out to the community.”
Visit the Ship-Shape! exhibit Sept. 6, for its reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Featured artists hail from Black Heart Tattoo, Cyclops Tattoo, Diamond Club Tattoo Studio, Dragonfly Ink Studio, Everlasting Tattoo, Goldfield’s Tattoo, Lyle Tuttle Tattoo, One Shot Tattoo and Rose Gold’s.