Wandering around the dusty paths of my old summer camp last weekend, I was struck by both the increased energy of and the volume of body art on this year's staff. I attributed the former to the camp's newly enacted no-smokey-smoke and drinky-drink policies. The latter? No clue. Perhaps the counselors want to ensure that they won't be interred in Jewish cemeteries beside their needy charges?

None of them, of course, would qualify for a spread in Tattoo, which proudly announces its status as the "world's largest-selling tattoo magazine" on the cover of its August issue. Their tattoos are limited to a butterfly on the ankle or a series of Chinese characters (likely mistranslated as "peace love sandwiches") down the shoulder. Tattoo subjects, on the other hand, boast around three square inches of unsullied epidermis.

The magazine doesn't showcase them as well as it might, owing to the informality and low-fi quality of its photos. Any title that focuses on art obviously needs to emphasize visual elements, as verbal descriptions ("see, about six inches up his leg there's this, like, dragon wearing an eye patch and it's gnawing on this, like, totally bloody unicorn") only go so far. For reasons I don't understand, Tattoo wanders away from the artwork on a regular basis.

Take "Marked For Life: Embracing Tattooing's Feminine Side," which calls attention to the skill and diversity of female artists. Rather than emphasizing their craft, the story fills most of its eight pages with photos of tattoo artists smiling politely for the cameras. Its opening spread features a gala shot of a resort where a recent convention was held. I tell you, those gals sure put the "rad" in "Radisson."

The feature on Primal Urge, a San Francisco-based parlor, suffers from the same problem. We get tons of shots of smiley tattoo people, but only a few of the work they have created.

As such, Tattoo mostly feels like a magazine written and produced for the publisher and his/her immediate circle of friends. Only two features -- "In the Skin," a holy-moly showcase of meticulously detailed body art, and "Francesco Fragomeni," which includes two shots of a dude with scenes from "The Divine Comedy" and an image of Da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man" on his torso -- realize the mag's artistic potential.

The writers don't provide much help on the words front. The stories behind the tattoos generally begin with bland color ("Growing up in a small 'no-name' town about an hour and a half north of Flint...") and descend from there, offering a mix of awkward cheerleading ("Must be da bomb!") and random opinions (Poughkeepsie is deemed "a colorful name for a city"). The biggest letdown may be the visit with the cast of "Inked," which does little beyond listing the artists' names and plugging the parlor as a tourist destination ("Next time you're in Vegas, check out the H&H Tattoo company -- a pair of gold dice on that arm would look like a winner").

And then there are the headlines and subheds, which alternate between the unimaginative (the guy featured in "Paul Pringle," is named, coincidentally enough, Paul Pringle) and the nonsensical ("Transferring High Integrity Ink" might refer to the subject's "Integrity" tattoo, but it sure doesn't speak to the skulls and screaming demons and bikini chicks that adorn his body elsewhere). Tattoo also struggles when it veers away from the topic at hand, as witnessed by the quickie piece on musicians/tattoo enthusiasts the Detroit Cobras. The band's most recent disc is described as "another cathartic trip through the halls of musical yesteryear," which sounds like something out of an review.

But really, what the hell do I know? I'm tattoo-free since 1976 and have no more insight into the body-art subculture than I do into the turtle-preservation or suede-fetish communities. Tattoo has been around for 23 years, an eternity for a niche title. Whatever the mag is doing right just happens to be lost on me, is all. It wouldn't be the first time.


Published by: Paisano Publications

Frequency: monthly

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