In a way, Sit Still or Die, a showcase of works by Cleveland-area tattoo artists, is business as usual at Breakneck Gallery. Owners Sean and Kristen Burns have been displaying body art for years, even before they opened shop. Along with their tattoos, even the couple's wedding bands are products of the inkers' arts. But now, the Burns have invited 19 regional tattoo artists to display on walls instead of skin, affording them a chance to flex their skills outside the boundaries of their professional practice.
"I'm trying to approach things so I can pursue life drawing and painting," says Steve Anderson of 252 Tattoo in Cleveland. "It's still a struggle to break down barriers and not have it look like a tattoo."
Tattooists trade motorized needles for brushes, markers, and ink pens. Sometimes all three instruments are used at once, creating frenzied mixed-media pieces. Techniques useful for rendering clear images on skin — like high degrees of contrast between colors and use of sharp, clear lines — often get transplanted here. Although the tattooist's hand is often recognizable in the assembled works, various artists depart from learned conventions in surprising ways.
Kasner's "Coffin" series, for example, looks more like graffiti-inspired art. Icons of the macabre from literature and film — Edgar Allan Poe, Edward Scissorhands, and Bruce Campbell's Ash from the Evil Dead movies — are rendered in solid black stenciling and filled in with neon colors.
The skull, a perennial staple of skin art, is treated by Classic Tattoo's Ross Lloyd in acrylics. One extremely tight close-up of a grey-yellow expanse of eye sockets and nasal cavity recalls more than anything Early Modern memento mori. The drawn-from-life detail recalls Renaissance works, and Lloyd's decision to thrust the bone right into the viewer's face drives home the classic theme of doom's nearness. Nathan Kemr's ink-based mixed-media works hauntingly combine religious iconography and disfigurement.
Above all, the show is about craftspeople brave enough to put practiced skills to new unpracticed projects. Even if you don't find anything there for you, at least nothing will leave a permanent mark.
An opening reception will be held Saturday, July 21, from 6 to 10 p.m. The exhibition continues through August 17 at 17020 Madison Ave. in Lakewood. Call 216-767-5610 or go to breakneckgallery.com to learn more.