Tattoo Art in Germany A feeling of freedom on your skin

Natascha Stellmach, Agent Provocateur: Hannah wearing Varookamcsalt (2012)
Natascha Stellmach, Agent Provocateur: Hannah wearing Varookamcsalt (2012) | Photo (detail): © Natascha Stellmach, Galerie Wagner + Partner

For a long time a tattoo was a stigma, today it is an expression of individuality and a fashionable accessory. Over the last few years a multifaceted tattoo scene has emerged in Germany, and even the world of art seems to have overcome its reservations.

“Actually, the craftsmanship involved in tattooing is much too wonderful to be considered a service,” says Valentin Hirsch, one of the most respected tattoo artists in Germany. Hirsch’s particular specialities are animal motifs and geometric patterns of an artistic quality which reveals his training as a classical graphic artist. His switch to the field of tattooing was an obvious, logical move for Hirsch, who was born in 1978, and at the same time a great temptation, too – “even in an etching you have to destroy something before you can create something”. The tattoo is much more individual for Hirsch than graphic art and it has to function right from the start, because human skin is, as we know, not the same as a piece of paper. He sees his work as a unique form of communication, “I need the impulses my customers give me.” This bond of trust between the artist and the client is, on the one hand, an enrichment for Hirsch, an extension of his medium – and, on the other hand, the great artistic dilemma of tattooing.

Part of everyday culture

Valentin Hirsch is a member of that generation for which the tattoo has become a natural part of everyday culture. Until the 1980s, tattoos still bore the stigma of crime and social marginalisation – they were to be found almost exclusively among sailors, prisoners or members of the underworld – mainly as symbols of loyalty or belonging. In the late 1980s however, tattoos then developed into a fashion trend, and today there is in Berlin, for example, a colourful and sometimes enormously creative tattoo scene. These days, the tattoo is accepted in almost all social strata as a fashion accessory and a form of expressing oneself individually. As a result, there have been all kinds of museum exhibitions on the history of the tattoo (for example, at the Hamburg Museum of Arts and Crafts in 2015). Even the demarcation line between tattoos and the art scene has become more and more blurred. Whereas people like Hirsch, a qualified graphic artist, have brought a long artistic tradition into their new field of activity, visual artists, in turn, are rediscovering the symbolic content of the tattoo.

Injuries that heal the soul

Natascha Stellmach (born in 1970) discovered the art of the tattoo via the art of writing. At the 2012 Documenta exhibition, she wrote visitors' hurtful comments, which she herself had received in response to another art project, in colourful children's crayons on her skin. Since 2013 the German-Australian has been working on a project called “Letting Go”. The project involves her working with the project participants to find a word that is of particular importance to them. Then she tattoos the word on their skin without using any ink in such a way that the letters are formed from the blood that is drawn – then after a few days or weeks the letters disappear. Stellmach’s project is similar to a therapy session that literally gets under your skin; tattooing is for her less an end in itself, but more a medium. “I find it great to work on people’s bodies, somehow a special intimacy is created, almost like confession.” She talks to her clients about their deep-seated fears and how to deal with them. “Unlike real tattooing, I am more concerned with the transient, with things that disappear” – but before something can disappear or heal, it first has to become tangible and visible. It is important to Stellmach that her studio remains a kind of shelter, even if she does sometimes tattoo clients as part of a performance with an audience looking on. And she always notices that even the visitors who do not want to be tattooed are fascinated – “What we do with our bodies is one of the basic questions we humans have to deal with.”

Stigma and Art

Today even artists are amazed at what people do with their bodies, and at how, throughout the decades, the stigmatisation associated with tattooing has been reinterpreted as a form of fashionable image cultivation. Tattoos are still, of course, symbols of loyalty and expressions of belonging to a group, of corporal decoration and a secret form of identification – but they are no longer only to be found in socially “outlawed” circles. For the earlier pioneers of body art, however, this stigma was always a central motif.

One of the legendary tattoos from the early days was the garter belt motif, which the media and performance artist, Valie Export, had tattooed on her left thigh back in 1970 in protest against the fetishisation of women. In 1974, the then 34-year-old “Total Artist”, Timm Ulrichs, (born in 1940) had a target tattooed over his heart in order to expose himself to the arrows of fate and the contempt of bourgeois society. “When, as an artist, you work with your own body,” says Ulrichs today, “then you automatically enter the realm of tattooing.” In the 1960s he castigated himself in front of audiences, in contrast that first tattoo may well have been an exercise in relaxation. “It was more a tearing open of the skin than a tattoo,” said Ulrichs, “and it was the Goethe-Institut that found the tattoo artist for me – a former foreign legionnaire.”

Ulrichs became famous in 1981, when he had the words “The End” tattooed on his right eyelid - every blink was now a Vanitas motif, a sign of his own transience. Ulrichs exploited the social stigma of tattooing to project himself as a “marked” man, and later he went even further. In 2005, he finally declared himself to be a brand and one of his own creation – since then, the logo “© by Timm Ulrichs” has been engraved on the calf of his left leg.

Tattoos, fashion and brands

A healthy brand awareness is also something the booming German tattoo scene promotes. The number of tattoo studios is huge and it is backed by countless Facebook and Instagram pages, therefore it is essential for the artists to cultivate a distinctive style if they want to make it. And sometimes it does not hurt to have a good story. Chaim Machlev, for example, says that his first tattoo was an experience of enlightenment for him: he went to the desert for five days, handed in his notice at his old job, sold his entire estate, and moved from Tel Aviv to Berlin to start a new life as a tattoo artist. Machlev, born in 1981, is known for his more abstract motifs. One of his tattoo designs, for example, consists of two intertwining lines sidling down from the neck to the tip of the toes. His “Paare” (Couples") motifs are also very popular – lines, patterns or ornamental shapes that are drawn over both arms or over two separate bodies, symbolically merging them into one.

With their Trash Polka tattoo designs, Simone Pfaff and Volker Merschky, born in 1973 and 1965, created their own underground style that plays in true virtuoso manner with the gloomy image of the tattoo. Their motifs often depict skulls, dead trees or crosses, are as a rule large, interlaced with each other, and are more or less spread extensively over the body; "Sparsely placed elements of red are used as a contrast and signal color in their otherwise consistently black tattoos that are often combined with artwork and writing. When they started with Trash Polka 15 years ago, according to Merschky, this style was absolutely out of the ordinary in Germany, just like their rule of not letting the client have a say in the design of the tattoo. Even today, their imagery is still very much focused on the Vanitas motif and the transience of the flesh. Whatever the case, if you have a Trash Polka tattoo on your skin, you will always be accompanied by the foreboding feeling of near death.

Ready for the museum

The duo of Pfaff and Merschky is an excellent example of how tattoo styles develop in the context of youth and subcultures and are then embraced by them; experimental tattoo artists, such as Valentin Hirsch or Chaim Machlev with their links to the history of art, have in comparison, already become rather bourgeois mainstream. The classic craft of the tattooist with its inked hearts, strong colour contrasts and sailor yearnings has, however, not died out altogether in Germany. You have to look for it and you’ll probably soon only be able to find it in a museum. In 1975, Timm Ulrichs published a portfolio of classically kitschy tattoo motifs in the form of screen prints. It was his contribution to Pop Art - in the meantime the entire genre of tattooing in Germany seems to be ready for the museum.