Employers really look down on tattoos

Tattoo art in Germany
The great freedom on the skin

For a long time a tattoo was a stigma, today it is an expression of individuality and a fashionable accessory. A diverse tattoo scene has emerged in Germany in recent years, and the art world is also shedding its fears of contact.

"Actually, the tattoo trade is far too wonderful for a service," says Valentin Hirsch, one of the most respected tattoo artists in Germany. Above all, Hirsch engraves animal motifs and geometric patterns in an artistic quality that reveals his training as a classic printmaker. For Hirsch, who was born in 1978, switching to tattooing was on the one hand an obvious one - "even with an etching you have to destroy something in order to create something" - and at the same time a great temptation. For Hirsch, the tattoo is much more individual than the graphic and, because the human skin is not a piece of paper, it has to work straight away. He sees his work as a unique form of communication: “I need the incentives from customers.” For Hirsch, this close relationship of trust between artist and buyer is, on the one hand, an enrichment, an expansion of his medium - and, on the other hand, the artistic dilemma of tattooing.

Part of everyday culture

Valentin Hirsch belongs to a generation for whom the tattoo has become a natural part of everyday culture. Up until the 1980s, tattoos bore the stigma of crime and social marginalization: They were almost only found on seafarers, prisoners or members of the underworld - as a sign of loyalty or affiliation. But in the late 1980s, tattoos developed into a fashion trend and today a colorful and sometimes enormously creative tattoo scene has established itself in Berlin, for example. Today, the tattoo is accepted in almost all social classes as a fashion accessory and individual expression, which is shown not least in various museum exhibitions (for example in 2015 in the Hamburg Museum for Art and Commerce) on the history of the tattoo. The boundaries to the art scene are also becoming increasingly fluid: While the trained graphic artist Hirsch is taking a long artistic tradition with him into his new field of activity, visual artists are rediscovering the symbolic content of tattoos.

Injury as healing

Natascha Stellmach (born 1970) came to the tattoo via the art of writing. At the international art exhibitionDocumentIn 2012 she wrote hurtful comments to visitors, which she herself had received in response to another art project, with bright children's colors on her skin. The German-Australian has been working on her since 2013 Letting Go-Project: To do this, she and the participants first look for a word that has a special meaning for them. Then she sticks this word under their skin without using ink, so that the letters are formed from people's blood - and after days or weeks they disappear again by themselves. Stellmach's project is similar to a therapy session that literally gets under your skin. For her, tattooing is less an end in itself than a medium: “I think it's great to work on the body, it creates a special intimacy, almost like a confession.” She talks to people about deep-seated fears and how to deal with them can. “In contrast to real tattooing, I am concerned with the ephemeral, with the disappearance” - but before something can disappear or heal, it must first be felt and visible. Stellmach, it is important that her studio remains a shelter even if she tattoos someone in the context of a public performance. And she notes again and again that the visitors who don't want to be pricked also watch with fascination: "What we do with our body is one of the basic human questions."

Stigma and art

  • Photo (detail): © Timm Ulrichs, Photo: Volker Warning
    Timm Ulrichs has a target tattooed on him
  • Photo (detail): © Timm Ulrichs, Photo: Ludwig Hörner
    "The End" on Timm Ulrich's right eyelid (1981)
  • Photo (detail): © Timm Ulrichs, Photo: Roland Schmidt
    "© by Timm Ulrichs" on his right lower leg (2005)
Even artists today are amazed at what people do with their bodies and how thoroughly the decades of stigmatization associated with tattoos have been reinterpreted as fashionable self-expression. Tattoos are still primarily a sign of loyalty and an expression of group membership, physical jewelry and hidden identifying features - but no longer only in socially "ostracized" circles. For the pioneers of body art, however, this stigma was still a central motif.

The garter belt motif that media and performance artist Valie Export had tattooed on her left thigh in 1970 in protest against the fetishization of women is legendary. In 1974 the then 34-year-old “total artist” Timm Ulrichs (born 1940) presented himself with a stabbed target over his heart in order to demonstratively expose himself to the arrows of fate and the contempt of bourgeois society: “When you work as an artist with your own body ", Says Ulrichs today," then you inevitably get a tattoo. "In the 1960s, he scourged himself in front of an audience, but this first tattoo may have been a relaxation exercise. "That was more torn than stabbed," comments Ulrichs, "the tattoo artist, a former Foreign Legionnaire, was found for me by the Goethe-Institut."

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 used the social stigmatization of tattoos to present himself as a person who had been drawn, and yet goes far beyond that. In 2005 he finally declared himself a brand and his own creation: Since then, the words “© by Timm Ulrichs” have adorned his left lower leg.

Tattoos, fashions and brands

The booming German tattoo scene is also characterized by healthy brand awareness. In the huge range, which is multiplied through countless Facebook and Instagram pages, it is artistically almost vital to cultivate an unmistakable style. And sometimes it doesn't hurt to have a good story either. It is said of Chaim Machlev, for example, that his first tattoo was an awakening experience for him: he went into the desert for five days, quit his old job, sold all of his property and moved from Tel Aviv to Berlin to start again as a tattoo artist. Machlev, born in 1981, is known for more abstract motifs. With him, two lines that play around each other snake down from the neck to the tip of the foot. His “pairs” are also very popular: lines, patterns or ornaments that stretch over both arms or two bodies and symbolically merge them.

Simone Pfaff and Volko Merschky, born in 1973 and 1965, are also involved Trash polka created his own underground style, which plays virtuously with the dark image of the tattoo. Their motifs often contain skulls, are usually large areas, nested in one another and applied largely covering; Sparse red serves as a signal color in the otherwise consistently black tattoos, which are often combined with graphics and writing. When she was with 15 years ago Trash Polka began, says Merschky, this style was absolutely unusual in Germany, just like their rule at the time not to give customers a say in the design. To this day, the vanitas motif and the transience of the flesh are at the center of her imagery - with Trash polkadeath is a constant companion.

Ready for the museum

  • Photo (detail): © Simone Pfaff, Volker Merschky
    Volker Merschky and Simone Pfaff
  • Photo (detail): © Simone Pfaff, Volker Merschky
    Simone Pfaff, Volker Merschky: Trash Polka
  • Photo (detail): © Simone Pfaff, Volker Merschky
    Simone Pfaff, Volker Merschky: Trash Polka
  • Photo (detail): © Trash Polka
    Simone Pfaff, Volker Merschky: Trash Polka
  • Photo (detail): © Simone Pfaff, Volker Merschky
    Simone Pfaff, Volker Merschky: Death Polka - Exhibition at the Macro Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome (2016)
  • Photo (detail): © Trash Polka
    Simone Pfaff, Volker Merschky: Trash Polka
The Pfaff / Merschky duo shows very nicely how tattoo styles develop and solidify in the context of youth and subcultures; experimental tattoo artists such as Valentin Hirsch or Chaim Machlev, with their borrowings from art history, are, on the other hand, more bourgeois mainstream andTrash polka can be seen in exhibitions. The classic tattoo trade with its pierced hearts, strong color contrasts and sailors' longings has not yet completely died out in Germany. But you have to look for it and you may soon only find it in the museum: In 1975 Timm Ulrichs published a portfolio with classic tattoo kitsch motifs as screen prints. It was his contribution to Pop Art - meanwhile the entire tattoo genre seems to be ready for a museum in Germany.