How Tattoos are entering the world of fine art

Tattoos are seeing growing acceptance in the fine-art world, but the once-subversive 1,000-year-old art form doesn’t fit in so neatly.

The tattoo is no longer quite the symbol of rebellion and subculture it once was. Roughly one in five Americans has one, and that rate is much higher for Millennials than their Boomer counterparts. Popular tattoo artists such as Nikko Hurtado regularly have close to a million Instagram followers, and the stigma against tattoos in the workplace is slowly fading in many parts of the country. Another sign of America’s broadening acceptance of the 1,000-year-old art form? High-art tattoo auctions and museum exhibitions.

In November the eccentric auction house Guernsey’s, which has sold President John F. Kennedy’s underwear and Cuban cigars, offered up a collection of 1500 images by some of the world’s foremost tattoo artists for between $50 and $50,000. A traveling exhibition that recently left Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts features life-sized photographs of traditional Japanese tattoo art captured by the photographer Kip Fulbeck. In many ways, tattoos are fundamentally at odds with the fine-art world’s business model, which is based on buying, selling, and displaying objects. And yet, it seems almost inevitable that, given the popularity of tattoos, more art institutions will recognize the value of embracing the once-subversive art form.


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