Welcome back Los Angeles, it is as always, Astor, the secret sauce which makes the Gumbo that is Speakeasy Tattoo extra spicy. I hope you all had a lovely week. I wanted to start off this sojourn into whatever esoterica piques my interest with a personal confession. Ok here it goes, forgive me father.
….I… like bad art. There I said it, send in the inquisition.
Ok so it’s maybe not that dramatic of confession, but look, I have four total degrees in art and art history, which means basically two things: that I will be in debt for the next 200 years and that I have been taught to have, for lack of a better word, categorically ‘good taste.’ I have been rigorously indoctrinated—as we all have to some degree—to the value system we place on art and aesthetics deemed ‘good’ as well as what’s bad. Granted what is bad and good will vary based on the cultural milieu, but the simple reality of living within a globally dominant *cough* colonial *cough* culture is that our Western aesthetic sensibilities tend to hegemonize those of others. So if dominant aesthetic practices and a truly vomit inducing amount of art school values have been drilled into me, why do I like bad art?
I keep going back to this quote by mustachioed film daddy John Waters on the subject. Paraphrased, Waters claims: “one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste. To understand bad taste, one must have very good taste.” Bad art does something different for us than ‘good’ art, which, in whatever medium it takes, follows a certain set of aesthetic rules. Rules like, composition, balance, narrative, flow, symbolic consistency. By contrast ‘bad’ art, either due to a lack of care or sheer ineptitude of the artist, tends to break these rules. In that way bad art tends to lack a certain level of predictability and restraint that good art can have by virtue of being, well, good. Let me give you a personal example of this effect. In the winter of 2019 (which was roughly 10 years ago by my count), a bunch of my buddies and I went to see the film adaptation of the musical Cats. And—incoming hot take—it was, to us, quite bad. Yet despite it being a true Nietzschean hellscape of a film and a breeding ground for a whole new generation of sleep paralysis demons, I loved it. Like, not even ironically, I genuinely loved how absolutely unhinged and audacious it was. That year I had been to the movies a lot and saw all the big budget tent poles as well as a smattering of acclaimed indie releases and what I had come to notice after seeing Cats (for the second time) was that movies had become really safe. There weren’t many films I had seen recently that seemed to be taking risks in their filming or story and it took something as bananas as Cats to put that in sharp relief for me. This, I argue is the unique power of bad art. Through its hypnotizing ineptitude it is able to shine a light on the shortcomings of “good” art. It can shock and surprise us in ways that better art sometimes can’t.
So that’s my defense of bad art.
However what if the bad art in question isn’t a film or a painting or some other medium that is similarly detached, what if the bad art in question in on someone’s skin. Forever.
That’s right, it’s time to talk about the aesthetics of bad tattoos.
There is something truly special about a bad tattoo isn’t there? Be it a scratchy hipster doodle, a busted-looking portrait, or ten-inch block text that proudly reads “Bron to Die”, the fear of bad tattoos is, I would argue, the reason a lot of people don’t get tattoos at all. I totally get it. Nobody wants to be labeled cringe for their piss-poor ink, or to be featured on some bad ink Facebook group, of which there are a shit-tonne. And there is some debate across all art forms on how much intentionality plays a part in bad art, that can an art be truly ‘bad’ if that was the artist’s goal. For anyone interested, there are artists out there who have made careers in ‘bad tattoos’. But I for one think it's time we embrace bad tattoos, at least a little bit. I’m not advocating for someone to go to a shoddy artist and get a busted backpiece, far from it, but what I am saying is that if we can concede that there is some value in bad art, that bad art does something for us, and is occasionally able to achieve effects even better than good art, then perhaps we can begin to appreciate the bad within our own artform. A lot of people get tattooed for a lot of different reasons, but a unifying factor practically across the board is that they want the tattoos to look good, so the wearer, in turn, looks good. No judgments, I am the exact same way. But perhaps there is a little narcissism inherent to that line of thinking. Maybe bad tattoos are a way out of that, a way of simply acknowledging that we are not that important and that our foibles are really not that big of a deal.
I spoke previously on this blog about the most memorable tattoo I have ever seen, but I’ll retell the story here. In 2007 a buddy of mine, a crusty 17 year old punk kid, came into class looking somewhat dispirited. When I asked him what why he was so upset, he responded that the previous night, he’d gotten hella crossfaded in his parents’ garage, and decided to give himself a tattoo, at which point, he pulled up the leg of his basketball shorts to reveal what he’d put on his thigh. In large, block letters each over an inch tall, he had written “FUCK THE POLESE”. Now, obviously tattooing Fuck the Police on yourself in your parents garage is pretty gosh darn punk rock, but what’s even more punk rock is doing so without checking your spelling. Personally I really hope wherever he is now, he still has the undoctored tribute to his reckless childhood intact, and he now shows it off with more good humor then shame. Just like a bad cat movie that has the sheer furry balls to open the same weekend as Star Wars, the audacity elevates a series of bad decisions into a form of pure unvarnished self-expression.
Anyway, thank you all for joining me on this journey of epicaricacy, and I’ll see all your bad selves next time.