First and foremost I want to acknowledge that this is opinion based. From the limited number of years I've spent in the tattoo world I don't profess to know much of anything. I simply have ideas and opinions and more than likely such opinions will morph and change as the years pass.
Tattooing is an interesting craft. Somewhere in the realm of art and creativity, teetering on the brink of very orchestrated design work, it's a tough medium to describe properly. We as tattooers are never creating "our art". We're taking instruction from a client and we're also taking instruction from the past. In academia you have individuals referencing books and articles and knowledge of the past, it's books about books about books. There may be a new idea in there somewhere but it's all built on the foundation of past knowledge. The same could be said about "fine" art; movements of art reacting to past movements and so on. I suppose the idea of commissioned artwork has always been around as well but somehow I view tattooing as slightly separate from all of this. We can take small chances, slight attempts at working outside of the box or expanding the proverbial box if you will. But ultimately there are formulas which work in the world of tattoo. Although I am seeing more of a dabbling of "abstract" tattooing going on out there I have a tough time believing that a smudge or drip is going to take on a timeless aspect in our craft. Concrete lines, identifiable shapes, easily read imagery, these are a few of the aspects which I personally am coming to realize as being at the forefront of our medium. The confines are relatively small to begin with and once given direction by our clientele those confines become even smaller. In a way this can be refreshing. If I had to sit down at my table each day and come up with the idea of what to draw as well as the drawing itself I would quickly be overwhelmed. The idea is always there to begin with so it just becomes a matter of executing rather than pondering. So we sit upon the edge of art or design, perhaps it's all semantics and truly doesn't matter much one way or the other. In the end there is something beautiful about taking the small steps, refining things over the years, slight glacial progression rather than immediate and abrupt change.
If anyone out there has watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi you might have a better idea of what I'm writing about. Dedicating years (or a lifetime) to the slightest detail, the subtle change, the aspiration toward the unattainable perfection. This mentality can be aimed at most any endeavour and I especially see it closely related to the world of tattooing. This is a stark contrast to the instant gratification which out culture seems to be breeding on an increasingly faster rate. The years of trying to get the proper curve to peony petal are unfathomable to the selfie riddled fast food brain of the "I want it now" population. This is one of the most important aspects which I noticed in master tattoo artist Diau-An. He embodied the work ethic and dedication on a daily basis which few others out there might dare to even dabble in. For this, he became a huge inspiration and a major reason as to why I pursued tattooing. This one mindedness can be seen in many forms of tattooing but for me it has always been the Japanese tattoo (and the Japanese inspired tattoo) which embodied the mentality most evidently. I recall trying to track down a very few books from the Saskatoon public library in an attempt to see a few bodysuits in an age where the internet didn't offer the immediate gratification which it does today. These were powerful images and for me a love of large scale Japanese work was born.
Beyond this there are a number of artist who have inspired me on a regular basis. Just like Jiro aiming for the ceiling of perfection these individuals seem to constantly push the edge of what is possible. In the end we all realize there is no ceiling and perfection will always be just out of reach. Again, this is all opinion based and for me these are my personal tattoo heroes. In the coming months I'll get the privilege of beginning a back-piece by one of them and the roles get to be reversed, me in the chair quietly accepting the pain as the artwork grows. I'll keep my list short as it could go on for quite some time. For now, here are a few of the most inspiring artist which I've come across.
Filip Leu for consistently blowing my mind and pushing the boundaries of tattooing.
Mike Rubendall for his powerful imagery, dedication, and attention to detail.
Aaron Bell for the balance and easy on the eyes imagery and such a great understanding of the body.
Shige for going beyond and making the average artist feel inept at best.
Stewart Robson clean and smooth and always impressive.
One might notice that there is only one Japanese artist on my little list. Perhaps this is due to my lack of being Japanese. In the end I'm working in the realm of the "Japanese inspired tattoo" rather than the firm traditions of the craft. Thus, these are the artists I tend to be drawn towards the most. Of course we owe so much to the past and the building blocks that have been set down especially in the not so distant past by Ed Hardy and Horiyoshi III. Without the foundation the growth and exploration wouldn't be possible. There are those who stay even closer to the tradition, much respect to them as well (Chris Trevino, Horitomo, Horikitsune, and so on). The past informs the present and the future is unwritten. Again, the slow progression, the harkening upon past imagery and rules, the aim to perfect something (anything), this is something at the forefront of my mind most every day.