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From the sketch to the skin: the artistic journey of tattooing

In Amsterdam, at the Rembrandt House Museum, you could recently hear the unfamiliar sound of a tattoo needle buzzing in a room next to priceless artworks from the Dutch Golden Age. Tattoo artist Henk Shiffmaker and other top Amsterdam artists have adapted some of Rembrandt’s famous sketches to make them suitable for tattooing permanent souvenirs on keen visitors. What Shiffmaker values is the juxtaposition between highbrow and lowbrow – inking sketches of the famous Dutch masters onto the skin of visitors. As Shiffmaker explained to The Associated Press, “it’s great that these two worlds can visit one another. Actually it’s really one world because it’s about art.”

Indeed, body art and more conventional art forms are intimately linked, and just as every great tattoo begins with a carefully-rendered design, many leading tattoo artists’ careers have begun rooted in their innate artistic talent.

Just look at the story of Jay B., an up-and-coming Italian-born tattoo artist based in Barcelona. As a child, Jay B. was always turned toward art, and started drawing when he was young. It was at a tattoo shop, sketching while waiting for his dad to finish getting his tattoo, that a tattooist spotted Jay’s drawing and told him he should think about being a tattoo artist. Before, Jay had never considered tattooing to be a career option, but the suggestion from the tattooist wouldn’t leave him and he started drawing tattoo-inspired art. At the young age of 19, Jay called a local tattoo artist in his native Italy and told him he also wanted to be a tattoo artist. And so began a journey that would stretch over years and countries before he would finally decide to settle in Barcelona, Spain honing his craft in the city that has adopted him.

To save the money to start his new adventure, he worked in two of the best tattoo studios in Turin; one of the people he encountered there would become his master, guiding him on the journey of becoming a full-fledged artist and relocating to Barcelona. Jay chose Barcelona very purposefully–he had a deep appreciation for the already budding tattoo scene in the city and was impressed by the calibre of the tattooists there. Indeed, when he first arrived in Barcelona in 2018, the competition was fierce, and hard work and determination were required in order for him to find his first studio job.

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Barcelona attracts a plethora of talented tattoo artists

The market in Barcelona was difficult at the beginning for Jay to break into–as it would be for any aspiring tattooist given the city’s reputation as a perennial tastemaker in arts and culture and its top-tier tattoo industry.

The Catalan city’s place on the global stage of tattoos has been solidified through the presence of a number of highly regarded international tattoo events that have allowed the city to come into its own as one of Europe’s premier destinations for tattoo tourism. Its reputation has been reinforced by the fact that for the past 25 years, the city has hosted the renowned Barcelona Tattoo Expo, which draws thousands of visitors and artists from all over the world. Beyond an impressive level of artistry, the tattoo industry in Barcelona is known to be a place where there are no barriers to creativity. Argentinian-born artist Paolo Goag, who moved to Barcelona over a decade ago, categorised the tattoo scene as being a place where “you say for yourself what is creative; I cannot say what is on your body is not art.” Regardless of the image chosen, “tattoos show sexuality, strength; they show you are beautiful.”

This spirit of artistic openness was one of the qualities that drew Jay B. and many like-minded artists to the city. While perhaps an exacting city to start out in as a young tattoo artist, the level of his fellow artists continues to be a constant source of inspiration. Barcelona is an excellent example of like attracting like and how tattoo artists from all over the world have chosen to congregate in Barcelona to be surrounded by other talented artists who all see the city as the next step in artistic self-actualization. In Jay’s case, he was particularly conscious of the number of extremely skilled tattooists in Barcelona specialising in the neo-traditional style which he himself prefers.

Jay describes his tattoos as being part of the neo-traditional style. Traditional tattoos, synonymous with bold lines and bright colours can trace their roots back to sailors in the 1700s, in a similar spirit, neo-traditional tattoos have their roots in traditional tattoos but tend to favour more complex colour palettes as well as variation in line weight, and have significant Art Nouveau influences. Neo-traditional tattoos also allow for a varied subject matter. One only needs to take a look at Jay’s Instagram profile to see the intricate colour palettes in reds and oranges that cover full backs, arms, and legs.

The embodiment of an artistic community

While Jay’s story of finding kinship among the neo-traditional tattoo artists of Barcelona is uniquely his own, it does echo the experience of artists before him and accentuates the role that community plays in the world of tattooing. Barcelona inhabits an interesting trend of artists coming together in a city to refine their craft in the company of other artists. The common goal is not one of competition, but rather of inspiration, creativity, and cross-pollination.

In an environment like that, it’s not surprising that artists like Jay B; flock to Barcelona to be with the very best of their peers and clients follow suit. As fellow Barcelona-based tattoo artist Flav Ink said, “People want a memory of their time here. This city inspires you to be free.”

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