I went to an art reception last night for one of my former art school instructors from Memphis College of Art. He is absolutely one of my favorite teachers I had in school. If you have seen the news media lately with any reference to our school, then you know that it is on the verge of closing for good. Most of the teachers I had back in the 90’s have long since retired. However, there they were last night. The Old Guard.
I bring this up because the teacher in question is someone I think would have made a great tattoo mentor. He was the kind of guy who would bust your balls by making jokes about your prospects in the food service industry, but then turn around and pick up your charcoal or paintbrush and then show you some new perspective or approach to attacking your composition to give it a life that you had not before imagined. He was inspiring and energizing. He loved what he did and if you did not respect what you were doing in the world he held dear, then expect a suggestion involving a future in the foodservice industry.
He was part of the Old Guard I just mentioned. They were a collective of teachers who contributed to the school, to the arts and to the life paths of many a young artist for at least 30 years before retiring or being cast aside by leadership that has lead to the current state of things. Oddly enough, this made me think of tattooing as well as most areas of the art world. Allow me to explain.
At any given time there are three positions for an artist to be at in their chosen craft. You are either a young up and coming generation riding on the heels and coattails of the current leaders of your field. You are one of those leaders, who is in that in-between time of their career where they have put in their time and work to build their skills and gained the respect of their peers and their industry. Or you are an elder, an Old Guard; you are the last generation that laid the groundwork for what the current leaders are doing.
Tattooing is one of the easiest of the arts to see this paradigm. We have our Old Guard. Some are gone. Some are still pouring into the next generation. These are our Ed Hardys and the few remaining flickers from the WWII generation of Sailor Jerry tattooers that blazed the trail leading to the here and now. They are the purveyors of generational wisdom that our current industry leaders sought out when they were young and getting started.
However, each tattooer of the current generation took that wisdom and pushed the envelope in their own way to create the current cog in the ongoing wheels of evolution. They haven’t forgotten their roots. And the most successful are the ones who didn’t shy away from change. Change is inevitable. All things change in time. But the more you know about where you come from, the more power you have to control and shape where you are going.
This brings us to our current generation of leaders and the up and coming generation of young artists. I guess the main message I want to give is the one that was going through my head when I went to sleep last night. Seek out wisdom. Value and seek out the wisdom of your Old Guard. They have seen much in their lives and have much to offer that can help you along your path, and help you preserve the proud history of the art. But also seek the wisdom of our current generation of leaders for the leaders of today are the Old Guard of tomorrow.
Learn the traditional methods and origins. Relish the history of your craft, even if you choose to never touch a coil machine. Find your voice and push your art in new directions for tomorrow. And If you find yourself at the pinnacle of your industry with the respect of your peers, remember how you got there and be willing to pass that experience to the next generation.