Like everything, tattoos evolve. Gone are the muddy green tattoos of yesteryear: images of anchors and eagles, or a broken heart with an arrow through it. As technology has improved, tattoos have morphed into multicolor images in an amazing range of designs, often displaying extraordinary detail and created with great technical skill. And it hasn’t stopped there. With mixed media tattoos that ingeniously combine different visual styles it’s all been taken to a new level. It’s not over the top to say that mixed media tattoos elevate ink from simple craft into the domain of contemporary fine art.
So what are mixed media tattoos exactly? What is this mad and exciting mixing of visual styles all about? Traditionally, as in most art, all the elements of a tattoo are styled to work with each other to form a coherent whole. In art, every style has its own particular characteristics. You don’t get art nouveau swirls in an angular art deco piece. One is built around flowing lines and the other depends fundamentally on geometric forms and straight lines. Mixed media tattoos break all those rules about unified wholes and styles that are composed of matching and coordinated parts. Instead, they put together elements you’d never normally expect to see alongside each other.
Usually, tattoos are made in the style of a particular artistic medium and are mainly, or entirely, of one visual type. That might be imitation brush strokes, echoing the medium of watercolor painting; or typographical letters and symbols, as in word tattoos; or photorealistic images that (as the name says) look just like a photograph. Other elements that are used in mixed media tattoos include abstract patterns and texture effects. These are combined and juxtaposed in innovative and striking ways.
A typical mixed media tattoo features a photorealistic image at its center, with surrounding details in completely different styles. Often that’s a portrait of a person, but not necessarily. Almost anything goes. Think of a nineteenth century scientific illustration married with patches of angular geometric motifs, or lettering, or other modern graphic elements. Or a photo of a contemporary cultural icon combined with cartoon-style characters against a textured background…
The exciting thing is that there are so many possibilities for new and unusual ideas. These tattoos usually make rich use of color, though elements such as text or photograph-like images may be included in a black (or black and gray) palette. In some ways, mixed media tattoos follow on from new school tattoos, which emerged around the 1970s and 1980s. That tattoo trend introduced bright colors, bold lines and new subject matter, with cultural references ranging from famous actors to Disney characters.
Logic says that the different styles used in mixed media tattoos are just incompatible, but in the hands of a skilled artist, the result is like something you’ve never seen before. It shouts ‘twenty first century’ in every way. Many of the leading mixed media tattoo creators working today have a background in art and graphic design. Dave Paulo, a prominent tattoo artist based in Portugal, started out as an architect. Volker Merschky and Simone Pfaff began their careers in graphic design and interior design, but now carry out their tattoo work in tandem with painting, photography and music.
The work of these tattoo artists has been described as experimental. It could also be described as cutting edge, because it really is at the forefront of contemporary tattoo art. German artists Merschky and Pfaff’s own style of mixed media tattooing has even been trademarked under the name ‘Trash Polka’ – ‘trash’ because it violates conventional standards of beauty and ‘polka’ because the artists compare their work to a musical composition. Their designs synthesize the trio of components that are typical of mixed media tattoos – photorealistic motifs, abstract and surreal images and lettering, typically using a mainly red and black palette.
So much for the style – but what about the images used? What do these tattoos mean and what message do they send? Merschky and Pfaff have described how they work. Clients provide a rough idea of the themes they like, and some significant keywords from a poem or song or literary work. The tattoo artists then create a design on a computer. It’s a lot different from going to a tattoo parlor with an image of what you want and just getting it replicated.
But the key thing about mixed media tattoos is that the meanings of the motifs aren’t necessarily the most important thing. The meaning lies just as much in the design (especially in the relationships between the different components of the tattoo) and the creative skill of the artist/designer. It’s the artist’s ability to generate dynamic designs with the wow factor that really makes the magic happen.
So: the point of these tattoos is that the visual effect is the thing, rather than the specific motifs featured. It all refers to some sophisticated ideas in art theory and art history. Practicing artists know that art isn’t just about ‘representing’ something that exists in the world. Art is all about how that thing (or concept) is made into something you can see. Think of the human figure. In the hands of a non-artist it could be a stick figure. An artist makes it into something so much more – and that’s where much of the meaning is. Art doesn’t have to have any coded meaning at all. Its primary meaning can be its visual impact. That’s exactly what mixed media tattoos aim to do – look amazing, without necessarily having any profound significance.
That doesn’t mean themes and motifs are irrelevant. If you want a mixed media tattoo you’ll still want the images and styles used to be something you like. Photorealistic images of skulls regularly appear as the central motif in mixed media tattoos but, let’s face it, not everyone likes skulls. The trick lies in the treatment of the motif, whether it’s your dog, Mickey Mouse, Marilyn Monroe or King Kong.
One technique is to mix the styles that are recognizably from different eras. The central image could be a piece of classical sculpture, against a backdrop of lettering in a funky, very modern font. Another example of contrasting the old and the new can be seen in the work of the American tattoo artist John Yogi Barrett. His hallmark style is called ‘neotraditional’. He experiments with combining realistic portraits, which are a recent innovation in tattooing, with the old-school style of tattoos that dates back to the nineteenth century. The only limit is the artistic imagination.
If you like the idea of ink that really puts the art into body art, mixed media tattoo might be just the thing for you. Note that they’re usually quite large and they’re definitely not understated. And be sure to find a tattoo artist with a track record, who can be sure to achieve the right result. It’s not just a matter of throwing together a bunch of mismatched images, patterns and styles. It still takes a skilled eye to make sure they work together to achieve the effect. It may be a clash of styles but you need a true artist to do it properly.
Mixed media tattoos aren’t to everyone’s taste but, love them or loathe them, they really are artworks in their own right. For a truly unique tattoo that’s bold, striking and all about the art, mixed media tattoos will tick all the boxes.