Like comic books, tattoos tell a story - and U.K. satirical cartoonist Paul Thomas is telling the story of tattoos in a new graphic novel from Nobrow.
An Unreliable History of Tattoos mixes fact, fiction, and some follies in the exploration of the art form that uses skin as its canvas. Thomas traces tattoos from their tribal origins to their use in British aristocracy and now as part of mainstream culture - while keeping its own subculture alive.
Newsarama spoke with Thomas about his satirical book, which is on sale now, and talked about how he came to appreciate tattoos, his own ink (or lack thereof), and how the comparisons between the tattoo and comic book communities.
Newsarama: Paul, how'd you come to want to do a book about tattoos?
Paul Thomas: I've always been interested in tattoos since I found a book about them in the library at my art school in the 80s. The book was written by a tattooist in the 1950s and was an account of the kings and aristocrats who had come to his studio to be tattooed. It was flesh-creepingly fascinating.
Nrama: Do you have tattoos?
Thomas: Don't have any tattoos myself. I’m much more interested in looking at the stuff other people have done to themselves! In fact, earlier today I followed a heavily-tattooed man into an interior design shop in Devon just so that I could have a closer look at his arms. Endlessly fascinating to see how they deteriorate over time and wonder about whether they regret them. Very voyeuristic I know - but everyone should have a hobby.
Nrama: I want to get back to your mention of not having tattoos yourself. Why is that?
Thomas: I’ve always thought that the only tattoo I’d get would be my football team Tottenham Hotspur as I’m sure I’d never ago off them. I don’t need my kids’ names as I’m not likely to forget either of them. I’ve seen way too many TV frogs like Tattoo Fixers to see people regretting tatts they’ve had done. I do like their look though, and they can look great. But I’m too aware how they will deteriorate. In as few years Beckham will just have blue arms and not much detail. Knowing this is a pretty good disincentive. The major problem though is the permanence. My 14-year-old son seems keen on getting some because all the wrestlers he admires have them in abundance. But as far as I’m concerned, if you like an image put it on your wall not your arm. Much easier to replace…
Nrama: So how did you go about learning the history, reliable or not, of tattoos?
Thomas: Well as you've spotted, the book's pretty loosely based in fact. But the bits that are true are based on Memoirs of A Tattooist by George Burchett that I mentioned earlier. The other source of information was when I used to sit on the picture desk at The Daily Express, the newspaper I worked in for 17 years, looking at the pics of celebs coming in from the photographers. Over the years - especially after David Beckham started to turn his arms into a doodling pad - how everyone started to get covered. Especially singers, other footballers and loads of women. It was quite incredible how ubiquitous they were. On both sides of the Atlantic. Some people were getting covered quite quickly too. And older stars too like Sylvester Stallone came to tattoos late and went wild.
Nrama: This isn't just a rote history book, but you thoroughly delved into the artistic elements of this as an illustrated book / comic books. How'd you go about trailing to nail the numerous styles of tattoo art?
Thomas: The one thing I really admire about tattoos is the sheer skill of most of the artists. I reckon it must be very hard to do it well, and the great majority of tattoos one sees are executed really well. With real imagination and technique. It can't be easy drawing on squidgy skin. Likewise with comic book artists. I think the quality of their work easily surpasses the standards of more conventional fine artists. The tattoos pictured in my books simply contain elements and imagery that I've observed in other tattoos. I doubt the early tattoos had that much artistic skill going on. They were more about just getting the ink under the skin I would expect.
Nrama: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the history of tattoos for this book?
Thomas: The most surprising thing that I have found out about tattoos is how much they used to be the preserve of the upper classes and the monarchy. All of Queen Victoria's sons were tattooed at her request so that they could be identified on the battlefield if they were killed in combat.
Nrama: How would you compare the comic book community with that of the tattoo community?
Thomas: Don't know how the comic community compares to the tattoo one. As I said earlier I admire the skill of both. I expect there a fair amount of crossover between the two. I was watching a program about a Lego designer who was having three different styles of storm trooper helmet from Star Wars tattooed on his arms. And now my son wants the same. I expect comic artists are a little more nerdy about that sort of stuff!
Anyway the book was great fun to write. The facts got rather blurred, but there is kernel of truth in there, and I don't think the subject looks like it’s going away any time soon in Britain or America.