Complex colour palettes arrived in Western tattooing in the late 19th century. Before then, inks were predominately black and shades of grey, often made from lampblack or gunpowder and applied painstakingly using single needles. Despite the primitiveness of the process, this single-needle process has been used to produced complex pictorial designs since the 1600s, and form the solid foundations of all the tattoo traditions that followed. These simple basic building blocks of tattooing – needles and black ink – remain at the core of all successful tattoos even today, though the black and grey style has developed greatly in sophistication and scope. In the mid-1970s, inspired by the large and detailed black and grey tattoos produced (by necessity) with single needles and black inks inside American prisons, artists such as Jack Rudy in East LA pushed forward the style, incorporating visual elements from graffiti (including script and lettering), car culture, Latino and Black music styles and the Catholic religious imagery prevalent in much Latin American art to create a distinct and novel set of imagery that still predominate the black and grey style today.
So-called ‘Tribal’ tattooing has earned something of a bad reputation since its peak in the 1990s, when spiky blackwork designs predominated popular tattoo culture. Nevertheless, ornamental, geometric blackwork tattooing remains powerful and beautiful, and if produced with reference to and reverence towards the traditional styles of blackwork which so shocked and enthralled early explorers to the islands of the South Pacific and Polynesia, it remains possible to create and wear work which is simultaneously both modern and timeless. Such work augments and works with the natural shapes of the body, sits strong and stark on the skin, and will literally last a lifetime.
After the electric tattoo machine was invented in the 1890s, lines in Western tattoos became thicker, blocks of colour became more solid, and shading became more refined. Though drawing on classic motifs of life, love and voyage which are found both on bodies and personal artefacts back into the Middle Ages – including the iconic pierced hearts, swallows, daggers, skulls, roses, and “pin-ups” – the Western styles of the machine age were a leap forward, particularly in America. These martial motifs are what many people still immediately think of when they think of tattoos, and for good reason: artists such as Cap Coleman in Norfolk, Virginia realised that these simple, strong designs looked good in the skin for entire lifetimes, improving with age as the bold lines and heavy shading got stronger and starker with time – Bold, as the old adage goes, will hold.
Chris particularly reveres the work of Cap and his contemporaries, and continues to use a basic palette of three colours in his traditional tattooing in homage to Cap’s work. Western traditional is something of the “house style”, and as he is able to draw on extensive collections and knowledges of antique flash, customers are assured an authentic tattoo with modern tools.
Unlike Western tattooing, whose associations and symbols have changed from town to town, from ship to ship, and from decade to decade, Japanese tattooing (like the woodblock prints whose style they mirror) is heavily codified, drawing on the legends of the Floating World – Edo period Japan in the 17th and 18th centuries. The precise structure and iconography of Japanese tattooing is thus tightly linked to the stories and myths, and it is crucial for authentic Japanese tattooing that the artist know and understand the deep, complex and subtle interrelationships between the texts and their depictions. Many Western tattoo artists do not appreciate these nuances, and thus their work can often be shallow and, to knowledgeable eyes, even outright “wrong”. Chris, by contrast, has studied Japanese print and tattoo culture intensely, and makes frequent trips to Japan, including once alongside his friend Alex Reinke, also known as Horikitsune, an authentically-trained Japanese tattoo master.
As with his Western work, Chris is committed to the lineages and traditions of the art-form, understanding that traditions and tropes exist for a reason, particularly in tattooing – these classic techniques and designs are timeless; they work well on the skin, look better with age, and will remain a thing of beauty forever.
Dr. Matt Lodder
Lecturer in Contemporary Art
School of Philosophy and Art History, University of Essex
Recently, Chris has been on judging panels for leading tattoo conventions. He has also exhibited his work internationally, with paintings housed in the Mike Skiver tattoo museum in Pittsburg and the Yokohama tattoo museum collections.