Gracious living and the tattoo

Imagery once associated with criminals has been hijacked by big brands

ANNE KINGSTON | Jan 24, 2008 | 21:05:25

Of all the alliances announced at the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month, none was more timely than that between Research in Motion, the company that makes BlackBerry, and New York City tattoo artist Scott Campbell. The 30-year-old inkster, whose work adorns the epidermises of designer Marc Jacobs and actor Josh Hartnett, was hired to create a limited-edition screen, or "theme," for the ubiquitous PDA as well as an adhesive BlackBerry cover boasting a tattoo motif. Befitting his celebrity status, Campbell was trotted out at the show to autograph his creations. Now he's in discussions about producing a laser-etched BlackBerry--which, when ready, will serve as final empirical proof of tattoos' 180-degree migration from street to corporate suite.

In a nicely ironic twist, the self-branding once associated with criminals has been hijacked by big brands. Previously capable of selling nothing save Harley-Davidsons, tattoos have been co-opted by everyone from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco to Steuben Glass. Last year, Camel Wide cigarettes replicated vintage watercolour tattoos in its print ads and packaging. Dodge marketed its Caliber SE to 20- to 30-year-old males as a bad-boy vehicle in print ads showing the car receiving a tattoo. "Companies think it's a way to connect with that 18- to 35-year-old demographic everyone is after," says Campbell, whose client roster includes Volkswagen, Comcast, Nike, Maserati, Victoria's Secret and Neiman Marcus. Equally in demand is Los Angeles tattoo artist Mister Cartoon (a.k.a. Mark Machado), who has branded, among others, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Beyoncé Knowles and Justin Timberlake. His corporate client list is equally high-profile: he designed a concept car for Toyota, a limited-edition shoe for Nike, a phone for T-Mobile and the lettering used in Grand Theft Auto.

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Fashion has also been infiltrated, with heavily tattooed models popping up in advertising--most recently in a print campaign for Juicy Couture fragrance. Ed Hardy clothing, a line of casual gear photographed on Madonna, Kevin Federline and Snoop Dogg, is based on the designs of Don Ed Hardy, the "godfather" of modern tattooing. Then there's the Sailor Jerry brand, a US$16-million line of clothing, housewares, accessories and rum inspired by the work of the legendary Norman Collins, who tattooed sailors stationed in Hawaii during the Second World War. Further up the fashion food chain, Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière has employed tattoo imagery on T-shirts and in his spring 2008 collection.

Decor, too, has been pierced. Campbell produces a limited-edition collection of tattooed furniture. Adhesive wall tattoos can be purchased at Home Depot. Last year, the in-demand Toronto firm 3rd Uncle Design was hired to interpret the aesthetic for the interior of Tattoo Rock Parlour, a Toronto nightclub boasting an in-house tattoo shop that opened last month. "It was the ultimate branding job," jokes designer Carmen Dunjko, who created the playful yet elegant tattoo-esque graphics that cover the club's mirrors, screens and bathroom sinks. Charles Khabouth, a partner in the venture, says the goal was to create a venue more designer than dive. "Many people who've stopped going to dingy rock bars now can say ‘I can go hear music, have dinner, have a tattoo in an atmosphere that's very clean and professional,' " he says. "That was the challenge for me--bringing it up a couple of notches."

No one has taken it up more notches, however, than Steuben, which launched its "Tattoo" line by the American artist and tattoo aficionado Kiki Smith last November. The collection's high-ticket item is a US$60,000 vase laden with classic motifs--a coiled snake, a bird on a branch, stars and flowers. The market clearly exists: the US$8,700 crystal snake proved so popular it's on back order.
Such high-end respectability--and marketability--has been abetted by the fact tattoo culture has become mass-market entertainment. The iconography serves as a plot device in David Cronenberg's 2007 movie Eastern Promises, which showcased the ink-embroidered torso of Viggo Mortensen playing a Russian mobster. Celebrity tattoo artists have usurped celebrity chefs on a new slate of reality shows including Inked and TLC's top-rated Ink franchise which, since 2005, has spawned CSI-like--first Miami Ink, then L.A. Ink, then London Ink. Oscar-winning producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer just signed Mister Cartoon to a three-movie deal, including a biopic. A documentary about the life of Norman Collins will make the film festival circuit this year, says Steven Grasse, the CEO of Philadelphia-based Gyro Advertising, which co-owns the Sailor Jerry brand and produced the Camel Wide campaign.