The Fine Art of Three Dimensional Canvases

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Tattooing was once considered the preserve of a “closed society” and often associated with all kinds of nefarious elements of a variety of subcultures, from savage Polynesians to rebel merchant classes, to criminals and bikers. It has since passed through entire social levels, including the elite and royal classes. Indeed, it is believed that back in the 1800’s intricate tattoos were once very much the preserve of the upper classes in England, even for women. Since then, tattooing has proliferated over time periods as symbols of cultural movements and generational ideas.

Those who make a life choice and decide to be part of the core of this culture are the clients of Analog Tattoo Arts Kolectiv (ATAK)—one of the most interesting and creative spaces to get a tattoo in the Bay Area. A great example of the work this group of tattoo crafters have developed over the last decade is their self-published, colossal book, BLOODWORK: BODIES Vol.1&2, which is an accumulation of projects the group has put together over a decade. It is encompassed of well balanced, meticulously worked ink with precise details and interesting shapes. These crafters acknowledge the permanence of their work and their clients become a work of art.

We sat down with one of SF’s most impressive tattooist: Adrian Lee, a member from the exclusive workspace ATAK, who explains how he carefully works on building a long-term trust relationship with his clients while planning his ink work (art) on the canvas (the body) and considering the human body as isolated planes to create a harmonious and well balanced positive and negative space composition.

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How long have you been tattooing and what is ATAK?

I’ve been a practicing tattooer since 1993, working in the Bay Area since 1995, and am a contributing member of ATAK. In San Francisco we operate on a appointment only workspace that does monthly exhibitions of works by various artists. In addition to the workspace/gallery we self-publish editions on the craft.

What is a tattoo?

That seems like a simple question but its difficult for me to answer. Basically its a transient mark; no different then that of a meteor hitting earth. I tend to view the human form as one single canvas and that, no matter how many tattoos you have, at the end of the day you only have one body thus one tattoo; a single canvas.

If you look at a painting, you are looking at a flat canvas, but a tattoo is like looking at a painting on or in a single three-dimensional canvas; except the canvas is living.

Tattooing that is culturally relevant and aesthetically specific is what excites me. Put craft and culture together: it makes art. Or maybe how Robert Williams stated it better when he said something to the effect “If it commands attention it’s culture, if it matches the couch it’s art.”

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What is one of your goals as a tattooer?

Many collectors prefer to acquire a lot of work from a variety of tattooers; I think that path is great and can yield wonderful outcomes. However, as a tattooer one of my goals within this limited lifespan is to work on as many single canvases as possible. I would prefer to have more tattooing done on fewer people as opposed to many tattoos scattered across a myriad of people.

Do you divide the body in anatomical stations for designing?

I consider a collectors body to be one canvas however when designing it helps to separate the forms into the primary and secondary planes. For example the back, from the base of the neck to the back of the thighs is considered one primary plane. The arms are secondary planes themselves having several tertiary planes. A good reference book on this matter is Bushido by Takahiro Kitamura.

Tell us about one or two of you favorite/inspiring tattoo artists

Two tattooers that have influenced me beyond measure are Tamotsu Kuronuma and Marcus Pacheco: Kuronuma for his sense of scale and dynamic flow and Pacheco with his structural black, textures, and profoundly intuitive use of color.

What do you see is happening with people who get tattoos in our generation compared to other generations?

Honestly not that much. The motivations and outcomes are basically the same. There is just more of it now. However, the base community of tattooers and collectors remains about the same.

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What kind of clients do you tend to seek out?

I tend to look for clients who want to make a life choice. Therefore I try to focus on single tattooer/client relationships wherein we can build trust over time and work toward a greater goal. It often takes multiple years to complete a back piece or bodysuit so having a working relationship based on trust is important.

What is the trend in the tattoo industry?

The movement has morphed into several distinct worlds. It has become an industry where it often feels like a feeding frenzy, a bit overwhelming, where it has become much more casual and more accessible. But on the other hand there is still the core community of people who keep the fire—the creatives who are in it for the love of the craft, not for the instant gratification.

The popularity of the tattoo experience tends to have extreme peaks and valleys but the heart of it seems to remain the same. The “core community” of the people stay; but the “adopters” or those that kind of course through it will fall out and probably will move on with other trends.

Is there still a stigma about tattoos?

The stigma its been reduced but once someone is heavily tattooed there is still a stigma and you can recognize it right away. I think it’s healthy to recognize those persons who negatively classify it so you can choose to disassociate yourself from that type of behavior. A tattoo forces you to see a story—not merely a snapshot in time.

Text by Joa Bohorquez
Photography by Max Dolberg and Kein Morita