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Getting Inked: Art History Ph.D. Candidate Explores Concept of Tattoo as Art Object

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Karly Etz

Body art. Yes, we’re talking about tattoos. For some, they are a mark of rebellion. For others, they are a declaration of love…a creative outlet…an extreme display of fandom. For Karly Etz, Ph.D. candidate in art history, they are the subject of her doctoral research.

Etz studied classical art as an undergraduate at Denison University before coming to Penn State for her master’s degree in art history, which she received in 2015.  “I pretty much did a 180. When I got to Penn State, I realized I was interested in the social aspect of art,” she explained. “There has to be an interaction between two people in order to view a tattoo, and I think that’s really interesting.”

Body art is an ancient practice, although, Etz notes, it did not become popular in the United States until around World War I and then experienced a resurgence in the ‘80s. Today, 14 percent of U.S. residents have a tattoo, according to research performed by the Pew Research Center and other organizations. If you look at those age 40 and under, one in three has a tattoo.

However, not all those tattoos are visible. According to Etz, in the tattoo community, there is a difference between someone who “has a tattoo” and a “tattooed person.”

“A tattooed person has lots of visible tattoos,” she explained. “If you’re hiding your tattoo, it’s not really part of your identity yet.”

Etz got her first tattoo—on her back—at age 18, with her parents’ blessing. They both have tattoos and simply requested she get something “tasteful.” She went to the same tattoo shop her parents had used, and chose a black rose with a single petal falling off. She recently got her first visible tattoo, designed by New York City tattoo artist Amanda Wachob, whose painterly designs reflect her fine arts background (see photo).

Etz is focusing much of her research on Wachob, who is one of a growing body of tattoo artists who are showing their work in museums and galleries, via paintings of their designs, or in Wachob’s case, photos on canvas of tattooed bodies.

“Tattoo designs are now diverse in style and some even attempt photorealism. That shift has made it easier for a tattoo artist to be considered a contemporary artist, and makes them more likely to be invited to a museum to show their work,” said Etz. “Tattoo artists ARE artists.”

Etz noted she is also interested in the performance art aspect of Wachob’s work. In 2014–15, Wachob completed a project called “Skin Data” at the New Museum, teaming up with neuroscientist Maxwell Bertolero to analyze the often-overlooked technology behind body art. While tattooing the project’s twelve participants, she and Bertolero recorded the time spent on each tattoo and the voltage required to create it. She then translated the numbers into visual representations, based on the voltage and tattoo machine’s pulse.

According to Etz, it’s hard for some people to grasp HOW she studies body art. “When they think of art history, they think of paintings and sculptures. But if you put tattooing in the same category as performance art, it’s easier to grasp.”

Etz chose to stay at Penn State for her doctoral work because she knew the Art History faculty was supportive of her unconventional research topic. While there are no classes specifically on body art, she is able to study it within the context of other courses.

“I do have to find a way to talk about what I’m interested in within my classes,” she explained. “When I’m choosing my courses, I find a time period that is relevant. For example, I chose Nancy Locke’s course on early twentieth-century Parisian art because that was a time period when people in France claimed tattoos were a sign of criminality.”

Sarah Rich, who specializes in American and contemporary art, is Etz’s advisor. She said that in today’s digital world, where people interact with others without necessarily having to deal with them in person, artists have rebelled by producing work that demands acknowledgement of bodies. “They may tattoo an image on skin—as with many of the artists Karly studies—or they may use the body as a tool of artistic production, maybe painting a canvas with a body part, or even generate performance situations in which they physically confront viewers in conversation or another kind of interaction.” 

According to Etz, tattoos—like other forms of art—provide insight into a culture and time period. “But it’s more powerful, because it’s permanent,” she said, noting that most tattoo artists believe those who paint temporary tattoos, or use ink that can be easily removed with lasers, are not creating true “tattoos.”

“They think temporary ink goes against the essence of what tattoos are,” she explained. “They believe tattoos are art objects, and question why someone would create an artwork—or tattoo—knowing it would be destroyed.”

Etz plans to delve into the concept of tattoo as art object for her dissertation. “I want to address how a tattoo can be thought of as an object, even though it’s not a separate thing—it’s on a body,” she said. “I’m lucky to have people at Penn State, like Dr. Rich, who believe in what I’m doing.”

- Amy Milgrub Marshall

Photo by Alex Bush