Opening February 1, 2020, Body of Work: Tattoo Culture explores the rich history and modern artistry of tattooing as a dynamic, ever-evolving artform whose mainstream acceptance has been driven by popular culture. The exhibition features large-scale, original works of art created by Northwest-based artists who demonstrate the wide range of styles possible in tattoo art.
One of those artists, Aaron Bell, began tattooing in 1995 for his “little punk rock circle of friends." Bell has spent the past 20 years studying traditional Japanese tattoo, falling in love with the style after taking his first trip to the country in 2002.
“I continue to experiment in the arts and am just as weird — if not weirder — than when I started in this life,” he says.
What was your initial art background?
Aaron: I was always an artist. I was kind of that awkward, reclusive kid. I remember when I was really young and I'd be sitting in my room drawing underground comics. Just drawing. I remember I could hear all the neighborhood kids out there playing football and I'd be up in my room just drawing away. I remember at the time I had Eerie and Creepy magazines. Heavy Metal magazine. And it kind of felt like contraband because I was a little kid. And these had adult themes, nudity. But they really inspired me. So, I just drew all kinds of weird, underground stuff.
What was your first tattoo?
Aaron: My first tattoo. It was my band. It was the logo and the initials of my band which jinxed it because I think we broke up a few weeks after I got it. Not that I regret it. And my most recent tattoo was from my friend Jack Rudy. I so admire Jack. When I was young and lived in California, I was getting my first tattoos in Jack's shop.
How did you develop your tattoo style?
Aaron: I developed my style in Japanese with an earnest effort to just want to be a well-rounded tattooer. I felt fairly comfortable doing some traditional images. I could do some portrait work. Maybe it was a little crude back then, but I felt I had a grasp on it. But Japanese was something I just didn't understand. I went down that rabbit hole with the intention of learning a little bit. How to do a good, clean Japanese tattoo. Pulled myself back out of the rabbit hole and go back to being a well-rounded tattoo artist. That was somewhere in the late '90s, early 2000s when I went down that rabbit hole. And here I am now. The deeper I went, the more I learned. The more I realized that I didn't know. I just loved the pantheon of characters. Yōkai are Japanese ghosts and apparitions. I always loved monsters, so that really appealed to me, and it became evident to me I found my real passion.
What is your favorite tattoo?
Aaron: It says, "Leah." My daughter did that when she was four-and-a-half years old. We put gloves on her, and we taped all the little fingers back and everything and put a machine in her hand and she did that. There was a crowd gathered around and, just like her dad, she wasn't paying much attention to what she was doing. She was looking around. Basking in all the attention. It was also probably one of my most painful tattoos. But I really cherish that one.
What advice would you give to other tattoo artists?
Aaron: My advice to other tattoo artists would be to just be passionate. Be positive. And know that what they're putting out there is going to come back to them.
What’s one thing about tattoos that gets misrepresented in popular culture?
Aaron: One thing I think that gets misrepresented through the media is that a tattoo has to have a deep meaning. TV shows, they need to get their ratings. They need to be dramatic. Somebody might be crying and with heart music in the background and they're talking about how their uncle Bob drove the car into a tree and this is to commemorate them, and it's good for the ratings. … Tattooing used to be somebody walking [into the shop] and go, "That's cool. I want that." And there was also a saying that, the tattoo gods will speak and when you're ready, you'll know. You wake up one day and say, "I want to get this." I've noticed people sometimes come into the shop and they'll repeat several times, like, "There really is deep meaning." And I'm like, "It really doesn't have to have a deep meaning. That's okay." And sometimes I can see a sigh of relief, but they're just following what the reality shows are portraying. Deep meanings are great, too, but it doesn't have to be. You can get a tattoo just because it's cool.
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