“As a tattoo artist, the role of the craftsman is interlaced with the role of the artist,” says Levy. “The artist’s hand is going to create things differently every time, because we’re not machines.” That might be why Levy chooses to create his tattoos with the stick-and-poke method he picked up in Nepal, for which the artist attaches a needle to a chopstick and pushes the ink into the skin by hand. In terms of the tattoo’s sophistication, this technique limits the scope of possibilities, but it allows the artist’s hand to show through.
And just as the invention of new art forms is often accompanied by new vocabularies to talk about them, tattooing has its own language, with terms like “flash” and “dot work” taking on new meaning. Tattoo artists often rise up in the underground, however, rather than through traditional pipelines like schools or galleries. Artists apprentice in shops and work to hone their craft, developing skills in linework and shading.
To really determine whether tattoos are art engages the broader, time-old question, “what is art?” But the easiest answer, as Panaite says, comes down to questions of intention and perception. If the creator or receiver of the tattoo sees it as art, then that’s what it is. Tattoos have gone through movements and trends, just as any other art form has. They are the product of the skilled application of materials, with consideration given to placement, aesthetics, and style.
What makes a tattoo good is another question altogether. According to Levy, it’s when “it loses the embellishment of the trend and aesthetics, and returns to a very basic idea of what a tattoo should be.”