tattoo art

Living Paintings: Tattoos by Dawn Furlong

Tattooing has come a long way since the days when it was associated mainly with drunken sailors and prison inmates. Today the human body is regarded, by many, as a blank canvas and the work being done by the best tattooists is, undeniably, art.

That was clearly evident last Friday and Saturday evening, at a highly unconventional show dedicated to the work of celebrated tattoo artist, Dawn Furlong (better known by her previous name, Dawn Purnell.) Staged at Linda Durham Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, a gallery always on the cutting edge, “˜Living Paintings was a combination of Furlongs works on paper and her body art, displayed by live models wearing black, stretch clothing with strategic cutouts to reveal the art under their skin.

living paintings

Tattoos by Dawn Furlong

The fifteen models – male and female, young and old – were arranged in groups, playing board games, working on a computer, watching a movie, but they were able to move around and were more than happy to talk about their bodily decorations. “Im an art collector,” said one young man. “Why not have art on my body, as well as on my walls?” He was displaying two “˜sleeves (full arm tattoos) of astonishing complexity and detail.

Dawn Furlong, who studied at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago, uses her needle like a brush, achieving shades and nuances that are far beyond the average practitioner. One man had flown in from Toronto, something hes been doing once a year for the past eight years, simply to be tattooed by Furlong. After extensive research, he had decided she was the artist he wanted to work with, and he had every intention of continuing the process, until no bare skin remained to be covered. “It gives me a sense of identity, it illustrates my life story, so it unfolds as my life unfolds,” he explained. “Its both a part of me and an extension of who I am.”

Not all the pieces were large and multicolored. One young couple, both of them divers, displayed some incredibly life-like images of sea creatures they had encountered during their deep sea adventures. The intricacy and depth of Furlongs work is quite astonishing, whether she is creating a portrait in black and white, an abstract pattern, or an entire, brightly colored scene. And, bearing in mind that tattooing is a medium that does not permit mistakes, the results are even more impressive.

details of tattoos by Dawn Furlong

details of tattoos by Dawn Furlong

Her style and much of her imagery are heavily influenced by traditional Japanese artistry, because, “the Japanese have always been so far ahead when it comes to tattooing. Its been a part of their culture for many years and they really are the masters.” But, unlike many tattooists, who favor just one style, Furlongs work ranges from oriental to tribal, realistic to abstract.

Interestingly, her works on paper are done in watercolor and gouache, again using a medium that allows for no mistakes, but its body art that is clearly her passion. “Its a challenge to create movement on a moving body,” she explained, “and you cant mix inks, like you can paint, so youre also working with a much more limited palette. Paper can just be thrown away if something doesnt work out and paper doesnt move. Neither does it talk back!”

The explosion of popularity in body art has made it acceptable in previously unheard of professional environments, such as legal offices, banks and even hospitals.

Embarking on a personal, artistic venture such as this is not inexpensive, especially as most works require multiple sessions to complete. A back piece, for instance, takes 40 to 60 hours, depending on its complexity, and most people can tolerate an average of 2 to 4 hours under the needle. One of the male models admitted to spending $3500 a year on tattoos, about the same as he spends on other kinds of artwork, and the word “˜addictive was used by almost everyone in the show.

Thanks to her impressive portfolio and a growing recognition of her talent, Furlong has a waiting list of 6 to 9 months – and that was before the “˜Living Paintings show. Since recently released figures indicate that about 1 in 5 Americans is now tattooed, body art is clearly a trend that is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Linda Durham (who, herself, had two ravens tattooed on her back by Furlong a number of years ago) may well be the first to officially recognize tattooing as a new, acceptable art form by displaying it in an established art gallery. She is unlikely, however, to be the last.

(All photos courtesy of Andrew Campo.)

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  1. Stacy Pearl says:

    Yes it was a cool show and I wanted to point out that all the living artists were sitting on our modernist furniture which is made and designed right here in Santa Fe by me Stacy Pearl and my husband James Guld.It was an honor to be associated with this show!