"Pierced Hearts and True Love." (Tattooing, Various Artists, Drawing Center, New York)

Article excerpt

"Pierced Hearts and True Love: A Century of Drawings for Tattoos" is a sprawling show with over a century's worth of work from more than 80 artists, including flash (readymade tattoo images), advertising, some portraits, some actual vintage - and modern - tattoo machines, a gorgeously produced catalog with essays by three PhDs (Mark Taylor, Margo DeMello, Alan B. Govenar) and two tattooists (Don Ed Hardy, Michael McCabe). Here, there are none of the cliches endemic to shows centered on tattooing: no photos of anyone with tattoos, no portraits of anyone getting tattoos, no lame/smug captions about how great it is to have tattoos, or, conversely, how awful it is to be marginalized because you have tattoos. Instead, "Pierced Hearts and True Love, constitutes nothing less than the beginnings of a history, with all the trappings - labels, attributions, essays, artifacts.

Which is good. Because for a long time, it was as if tattooing had been invented the very day you went to get your first tattoo. That was cool, we liked it that way and so did the tattooists, but like most kinds of cool, this stance bred a certain kind of insecurity - the margins are lonely as well as supportive. And even outlaws want what they have not got. So at a certain point, things began to change; Don Ed Hardy (who curated the show along with Ann Philbin and James Elaine of the Drawing Center) had a lot to do with that. When, in the '70s, Hardy began to emerge as a tattoo artist, unofficial chief tattoo historian, and spokesman for the still-nascent "legitimate" tattoo world, he worked hard to change tattooing's image from weird sideshow attraction and redneck/lowlife practice to actual art form. The Modern Primitives issue of Research, in 1989, made a difference, too: it seemed as if you couldn't go into a tattoo shop without finding a copy, right next to the tattooist's portfolio, and no hispter's library was complete without one. Tattooing still seemed like a weird thing to do, even in that context, but it was smarter somehow, keeping company with J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs and Survival Research Labs - more like something worth respecting.

Which it was all along, anyway; "Pierce Hearts and True Love" proves that if nothing else. Look at George Burchett's drawings from the beginning of the century and you can't help but marvel at what he was able to do with limited training and resources. Burchett's work would look good anywhere, on anyone's body, in anyone's gallery or museum (the portraits of his wife are especially spectacular). …