Like other top artists, Thomas Hooper has a signature style and can charge thousands of dollars for his best pieces. His name is known around the world and clients go to great lengths to seek him out for his vision, immense skill and keen sense of artistic purpose.
But Hooper, 31, born in Bexhill-on-Sea and now the toast of New York, is neither a sculptor nor a painter, but a tattoo artist.
For many, the difference between fine art and the cutting edge of modern tattooing has now virtually disappeared. “A lot of my work is to do with our own mortality and what could be called our souls,” Hooper told the Observer as he sat in his studio, New York Adorned, where rock star Lenny Kravitz and DJ Samantha Ronson have been inked.
Hooper is a key figure in a burgeoning scene, a long way from the stereotype of tattooing as the preserve of sailors and soldiers (though tattoos were once popular with Victorian aristocrats and even, it was rumoured, the royal family). It is also a long way from middle-class professionals asking for Chinese characters or butterflies to be inked on their backs.
Now many tattoo artists have the coveted initials MFA – Master of Fine Arts – after their names and have studied in respected art schools. They have waiting lists up to two years long, and clients often have to persuade the artist of their own commitment and vision.
Hooper has a waiting list of six months. Sometimes clients seek him out and offer him their skin as a blank canvas, something he always declines as he prefers some client input. But he does understand that the reason people want a “Hooper” on their bodies is partly the same as a collector shelling out money for a David Hockney painting. Hooper has a style of his own that earns both recognition and value. “My goal as an artist, and as a businessman, is that I want someone to see a tattoo and, if it is done by me, to know that it is mine,” Hooper said.
He is not alone. Many major cities have tattoo artists with huge followings. In New York, Anil Gupta is reported to charge up to $400 an hour. Another Briton living in America, Steve Byrne, also has people seeking him out. “At least half of the people I tattoo have travelled to find me, or caught me at a convention in their area,” Byrne said.
Tattoo conventions are commonplace now. More surprisingly, so are art gallery exhibits featuring tattoo artists and their skin work. Last year, Vancouver held an exhibition of tattoo art, as did the Noyes Museum of Art in New Jersey, the Arts Center@319 in Virginia and even the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Just as the modern art movement is fractured, so, too, is the tattooing scene. On the one hand, there are auteurs such as Hooper and Gupta. On the other, there are the tattooing equivalent of Damien Hirst, big on flashness and publicity, who can make millions from their work. Perhaps the most famous is Mario Barth, who charged $150,000 for five hours’ work tattooing rock star Tommy Lee.
Hooper is dismissive of the publicity around such artists, but recognises their talent. “One of the reasons they are on TV is that they are very good,” he said.
There are, of course, reasons why tattooing is different from other fine arts. First is the medium: human skin. Then there is the fact that a tattoo, unlike a painting or sculpture, cannot be sold on. “To a degree, the fine art world has jumped on it. But a tattoo has no resale value. That is crucial,” said London-based tattoo artist Alex Binnie.
Then there is also the intimate client relationship in tattooing. A tattoo artist almost always carries out the wishes of a client to some degree.
Defenders of tattooing as fine art would point out, however, that many masterpieces were created by artists operating under the instructions of patrons or clients. Hooper sees his work as an amalgam of his vision and his clients’ wishes. “The clients that get the best work are the ones that enjoy me and I enjoy them,” he said.