I thought about getting a tattoo at least five times with five different designs. The first time, in my Coldplay phase (although I should say one of my Coldplay phases), I wanted a taattoo with the title of one of their songs. The second time, I went for a drawing of a hedgehog who uses one of his spines as an arrow. A friend of mine made it for me as a visual representation of my personality, and it was supposed to mean something like ‘a determined hedgehog’. The third time, I wanted a cactus. The fourth time, a carrot. For, if you know me, you will also know that carrots are always part of my lunch. Every. Single. Day. The fifth time, touched by the work of photographer Laura Dodsworth, I thought about a breast.
Needless to say, my indecisiveness became inertia. I did not get any of them.
Defeated by my tattoo-vacillation, I was determined to find out what mysterious bonds could tie together philosophy, art and tattoos. I ended up Skyping Jim Burgman on Easter Sunday. Video calling with someone you have never met before can be pretty awkward, especially (and maybe paradoxically) because, contrary to what happens in a regular interview setting, you enter their private zone. You see the room where they are sitting, which, in the majority of the cases, is their studio, living room or bedroom. You see how they decorated it, what they have lying around, the colors of the walls, and other small things that tell you something about their personality. In my case, I got to see Arthur, Jim’s cat, who tried to grab his attention a few times at the beginning of the interview and then, as every cat on the planet, started to mind his own business.
To avoid gaffes later on, I immediately ask Jim a basic, yet introductory question: “How do you define yourself? As a tattoo artist or illustrator?”
“It’s both actually,” Jim admits chuckling, “I get my salary by making tattoos but I like to draw and illustrate. I started to draw when I was a kid, long before I started tattooing, so there is not a clear-cut difference to me.”
The natural follow-up question is how he started his career as tattoo artist. As the best things in life, it turns out to have been quite an accident. “One of my brother’s friends bought a tattoo machine on AliExpress and, knowing that I was good at drawing, asked me to do a tattoo on him. I wasn’t really sure about that, but then I realized that he wasn’t able to draw at all, and that if I had let him do it himself it would have been a real disaster. So I tried, and it came out pretty good for it being the first time. The same person knew someone who was working at a tattoo shop and, after having been introduced to them, I got offered an apprenticeship there. I was a bit hesitant at the beginning, but one week later I started. I learned about the technique, the hygiene measures, and I practiced a lot.”
“I see. But why did you study philosophy in the first place?” I say genuinely curious but maybe in a slightly inquisitive manner.
“Well, I was interested in the subject.” Jim replies promptly. “After high school I tried art school, but it wasn’t for me…”
“Oh, why not?” I ask, interrupting him, while thinking quite naively that an artist who does not like art school is a quite funny combination.
“In my experience, art school was really about the concepts and the stories behind the artwork in a way. I really wanted to learn more about the techniques, how to paint and draw better. I wanted to be a better artist, while in art school I had the feeling that the focus was mainly on the narrative behind an artwork. I could have made up a really good story about a not very good piece of work and it would have been okay for my degree. It simply was not my goal or what I wanted, so I quit.”
“And then?” I ask quite impatiently.
“And then, after a lot of searching, I decided to go for philosophy,” Jim answers patiently following me in my detours.
“Oh, now we are back on track!” I think, ready to just be quiet and let him continue the story. “So, you were saying… You started philosophy because you were interested in the subject.”
“Yes,” he resumes, “I started my bachelor in philosophy because I was genuinely interested in it. Honestly, I didn’t plan on finding a job in philosophy afterwards. Most of the people I know who studied philosophy in their bachelor, went in another direction later on, and that was my plan as well. I wanted to develop myself and my way of thinking. I loved to read philosophical texts, but I would have liked to find a job as an illustrator later on. And then, everything happened earlier than I thought. For a period, while I was in my second year, I tried to do both but I noticed that, in this way, I was not able to do my best. I had to make a choice, and focus on one thing, so I quit philosophy.”
I have to say that, perhaps because among the interviews I have done so far this is the one I was less familiar with, I spent a few hours preparing for the interview. I looked at Jim’s portfolio, checked his website, followed his Instagram stories and stuff. At the same time, probably scared of coming across as a bit of a stalker, I was reluctant to share my information, so my plan was to drop bits of what I have seen or read every now and then during our conversation. Yet, my plan was about to be shattered. “Looking at your portfolio,” I start with nonchalance, “most of your work is inspired by surrealism. How did you develop your own style?”
“When I started drawing, I was mostly inspired by other artists. I remember looking at their paintings or drawings and thinking that I wanted to be able to draw like them. Also, when I was young, I used to read many comics. My favorite was Joop Klepzeiker,” Jim giggles, “I know that most people find it disgusting, but I liked the way it was drawn. I was also looking up to Gustave Doré, who made wonderful wood engravings, and Salvador Dalí. At the beginning, I was trying to emulate them. Now, although I am still influenced by them, I’ve developed my own style.”
“Right. Looking at your Instagram page,” and there goes the second hint that I have been gathering some info, “it seems that your work is also inspired by the human body. On your website you say that you are inspired by nature, philosophy, dreams…”
“True, I find dreams particularly interesting and fascinating. When I was a kid, I used to have many nightmares and, in general, I have a lot of images in my head that I cannot express in words. I found out that the only way to take them out and find some relief was to draw them. Maybe this could be therapeutic too, somehow. If I draw them, other people can relate and find something of themselves in it. It doesn’t matter if their meaning is different from the one I had in mind while drawing them. I think everyone should be able to look at my drawings and find their own meaning. That’s something I really like about my job.”
“So, drawing, more than painting, is what you thrill to,” I add, thinking that I have not really seen anything besides drawings or tattoos on his Instagram profile.
“Yeah, just drawing. I mean I do other stuff as well in my free time but I draw, mostly.”
“Oh yes!” I say a bit too enthusiastically, “I saw on your Instagram stories that in the past few days you were making a drawing and then putting it on the back of a jacket and coloring it in.” And goodbye to my plan to remain discreet.
“Yes,” Jim does not seem to mind too much that I have been sneaking into his profile, and continues, “I am still working on that.” He takes the drawing, which was probably hung on the wall in front of him, and shows it to me. Pretty cool (as you can see!).
At that point, I remember he told me, while we were emailing about this interview, that he is about to open his own studio with a friend. This, however, makes me wonder how his days would be if he was not busy with starting a new business. What intrigues me is, in particular, how he organizes his creative work. Is there a clear separation between drawing something just for fun and drawing something you will be paid for?
“No, there is not really a way to take them apart. I usually make drawings in my own free time. Then, I share them on social media, and sometimes it happens that people like them and message me asking if the design is still available.” Jim explains and, perhaps noticing my confused expression, continues, “I don’t do the same drawing twice, I think it’s nice that everyone has a unique tattoo. That’s one of the reasons why people ask particularly for me at the studio, they know I will make something no one else will ever have.”
“How cool!” I comment quite dazzled by the idea of having a one of a kind tattoo. “And then, what happens next?”
Jim kindly goes on explaining, “Then we make an appointment. On the day itself, we decide together on the size and the exact place of the tattoo, because certain drawings look better on a particular part of the body. When this is decided, I make the stencil and start tattooing,” he concludes saying this last sentence in a very natural way. It is curious, if you think about it, that there are certain experiences in our lives that allow two completely different point of views. Take, for instance, the experience of getting a tattoo, or graduating, or giving birth. The person who is getting the tattoo, or is about to graduate or give birth, will maybe go through that experience only once in their lifetime, and therefore attaches a particular meaning to it. Yet, if you see the experience from the point of view of the tattoo artist, or the professors in a graduation ceremony, or the nurses and doctors in the delivery room, these are quite ordinary activities and have almost lost their once-in-a-lifetime taste.
My next thought is about the drawings themselves. All the five times I thought about getting a tattoo, I had pretty clear in my mind the design I wanted, and I have never thought about the fact that the tattoo artist might have found my idea pretty ugly or just not in line with her/his own style. Once again, I turn to Jim and ask him how he finds a balance between drawing something that the client likes and something that reflects his own artistic style.
“Honestly, I like when people come to me because they like my style. Of course, they can also contact me with their own idea, and I will try to make something out of it that is a sort of compromise between the two. But I find it nice that people trust me to develop their idea into something that reflects my creativity. I think this is the main reason why it is important for a tattoo artist to have a unique style. The tattoo industry is growing pretty fast so it’s important that you have something original, unique and special that takes you apart from the other artists on the market.”
“Are there images that you would refuse to tattoo?” I ask thinking about political logos for instance, but also about the debate that animated the web when Brooklyn Beckham (the eldest son of the ex-football player David Beckham and of the ex-Spice Girl Victoria Beckham), got a tattoo of a Native American with traditional headdress, which many people found offensive and disrespectful towards indigenous people.
“I haven’t had that experience yet, but it could happen if I strongly disagree with something or find a design offensive. I mean, it already happened that I refused to do certain tattoos, although I did it for different reasons. For instance, if someone comes in and wants a tattoo that doesn’t reflect my style at all, or they want something on their face, or on their hands, while not having any other tattoo, I will say no. The face and the hands are the most extreme positions, so not a good place to start with.”
This last sentence makes me automatically look at his hands (the face had already been checked while talking, no tattoos there). No tattoos there either. Skype calls, as many fans of the ‘all dress up in the upper body while still in underwear in the lower body’ know, do not allow you to see much. So, without even thinking about it, the question “Do you have many tattoos?” comes out of my mouth.
He cracks a smile, “Do you expect me to have many tattoos?”
“Well, more than an average person,” I respond while looking outside the camera of the laptop, and trying to bashfully hide that the way he returned my question took me a bit by surprise.
He laughs, phew, good sign, “For a tattoo artist I am pretty clean.”
‘One last question to satisfy your curiosity and then back to philosophy, Ilaria!’ I tell to myself while asking Jim, “What is the most philosophical reason you’ve ever heard to get a tattoo?”
“Actually,” he starts, “I think the main reason why people should get a tattoo is because they like it from an aesthetical point of view. You will have it on your skin for your whole life, and you have to look at it every day, so it is important that you get something you think you will still like in ten years. Ideas change and the way you think about things changes as well, while it is more difficult to change what you find beautiful. So, I personally think that the reason behind a tattoo is secondary to its look. Yet, I do understand people who get a tattoo with a more or less deep meaning behind it. For instance, the first thing I tattooed on myself was an owl, the symbol of philosophy and wisdom. At the time, I was still studying philosophy so I thought of combining the look of an animal I liked, and the philosophical meaning behind it.”
Okay, time to go back to the relationship between philosophy, art and tattoos. As a student who is trying to combine art history and philosophy in her thesis, I have to say that it is not the case that philosophers are disinterested in art, quite the opposite. However, it seems that many scholars have a practical approach to art, and they see art mainly as a way of expressing philosophical concepts. This probably has to do with one of the most famous theories ever formulated to interpret an artwork, namely the iconographical-iconological method as practiced by Erwin Panofsky. According to Panofsky, a piece of art should be analyzed in three stages. First, we just have to rely on our practical experience and describe the figures in the scene (pre-iconographical description). Then, we have to use our knowledge of literary sources, allegories and of the customs of a particular society to go beyond the mere description and be able to say what is really happening (iconographical analysis). Finally, philosophy can help us in interpreting the intrinsic meaning of the events, the essential tendencies of the human minds and so on (iconological interpretation). However, this means to consider art as a sort of handmaid of philosophy, and not as an activity that has its own reasons and its own authority. While thinking these things aloud, I wonder what art could teach to philosophers. Thankfully, Jim has an answer ready for me.
“Philosophy is all about words. Words are the tools philosophy uses to express certain ideas and communicate them. But words are limited somehow, certain things cannot be put into words. That’s when images, music, performances, and other forms of art come on the scene. They are able to convey ideas, concepts, emotions, you couldn’t express in any other way. Maybe this comes from my personal experience, I have always been a visual thinker and that’s why I found philosophy pretty hard. Everything I was thinking had to be verbalized, but for me this is just not possible sometimes. With art I could express myself directly, without passing through another medium.”
But of course, as in every relationship, this is a two ways street. So, there is also something art can learn from philosophy. For instance, while looking at Jim’s portfolio, I could not help but notice the copious amount of drawings of naked bodies, female especially. The bodies of these women are very very close to what our societies consider the perfect body: skinny, large and firm breasts, with some muscles but not too manly, tiny waists, and so on. I really do not mean to accuse Jim’s work of perpetuating the stereotypes associated with women and their bodies, yet, I do ask myself what is the role and responsibility of art in this.
Jim patiently waits for me to finish my intricate thought, and pauses a bit while thinking about his answer.
“Well, if I have to speak for myself,” Jim begins, “I like to draw every kind of body but I also have to sell my drawings. I have drawn less aesthetically pleasing bodies in the past, but then they were not as successful as the more perfect bodies, as you called them.”
Interesting. This reminds me of what Edward Said said about the relationship between capitalism and the fine arts. With capitalism, art has become ‘commercial’ in Said’s opinion, and the tacit rule that what makes a person an artist it to be able to sell her paintings has been laid down. It is quite sad to observe that after more than forty years Said is still right about this.
“Also,” Jim continues, “I learned how to draw bodies from a book, Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth by Andrew Loomis (1943), an influential illustrator who wrote a series of art instruction books. In the book, he mentions a few proportions that should be respected while drawing a human body. For instance, the wrists are a bit below the crotch, the elbows are on the same line as the navel, in the female body the waist is one head unit, and so on. If you follow these rules, you get what you called the ideal body. It is simply the standard way of drawing bodies.” Another interesting point from a philosophical point of view. After the interview, I looked for the book, I found it, and, while leafing through the pages, I noticed that what the author describes as the male or female body, is actually only one possible human body (and a quite ideal one if you ask me) among many. Intriguing how what we consider objective, anatomically precise, and therefore scientific knowledge, is actually a generalization of a pretty unrealistic standard.
While I think about this, Jim returns my initial question, “I honestly don’t think about what my drawing can mean for people who might compare them to their own body.” He hesitates for a while, “I don’t know, what do you think about it?” He asks and, for the second time in the interview, my own questions backfire on me. With my renowned ability of answering to simple questions with bloody long answers, I start by saying that what art considers beautiful is a reflection of what the culture in that specific time finds beautiful. Yet, art can also have a revolutionary role, by painting or reproducing bodies in certain ways art can change our idea of what is beautiful. “But yes,” I add, “I do think that art can be responsible for making people feel more or less happy about themselves. While looking at a female body that everyone considers beautiful, I think it comes quite natural to compare yourself to that and, if you do not find any resemblance, to think that your body is not beautiful. I think it is a responsibility art has, although artists are not always aware of this,” I conclude, delighted by the dialogic dynamic of this interview.
“True, and also what is considered beautiful changes over time,” Jim says, taking back the Skype floor, “Peter Paul Rubens, for instance, drew women who would be considered plus size models today but maybe in his time that was the ideal. Of course, as I said, the market influences my style and my way of drawing. When I started tattooing, my drawings were sketchier and weirder, but then not many people wanted them on their skin. Weird drawings are nice, unless they are too weird and rough looking. So I started making more precise and refined drawings to meet the taste of the people more. The bright side is that, once you have more people who like your style, you can experiment more and try out new things, and you have more freedom. So perhaps this is actually a good moment to include some diversity in the way I draw bodies.” He stops, chuckles and then continues, “My girlfriend, for instance, made me notice that I usually don’t draw girls with curly hair, so I made a drawing inspired by her curls and gave it to her as a present. To be honest, there wasn’t really a reason behind my not drawing curly girls. I just needed someone who made me notice that to start including some more diversity in my work. And the same goes for this case, although I haven’t thought of it before, this is something I will keep in mind in the future.”
We say a few last words, we tell each other to take care during this quarantine and we hang up. I might not have solved my tattoo-vacillation, and I might change my mind another five times before getting a tattoo (if I will ever even get one), but at least I started to draw some connections between art and philosophy. Two disciplines that I equally respect and cherish. And if, in my possible philosophical future, I will be able to keep in mind what art can teach to philosophers, then that would already be a great start.