Photos of Tattoo Enthusiasts Reveal Beautiful Artwork Most People Never See


Spencer Kovats's photo series makes viewers question "what lies beneath."

Kovats was one of 11 photographers who participated in Vince Hemingson's 2010 "The Tattoo Project," from which a book of the same name was published in 2012. A companion documentary is in the works and can be supported through Kickstarter.

In his series, Kovats juxtaposes two images of the same person: one in which that person is fully clothed and another in which she reveals previously unseen body ink. What Kovats exposes is the power of perception, specifically in how that perception of the surface — of the fully clothed person — leads to assumptions about who that person is "underneath." 

Kovats' project challenges these assumptions, reminding viewers that first impressions can never capture the full picture. In viewing a diversity of bodies and the breadth and magnitude of their ink, the observer is also forced to reassess basic cultural assumptions about tattoos, much like with the highly celebrated photo series of seniors with tattoos. 

Tattoos have served as artistic and spiritual self-expression for centuries, beginning in Samoa, for instance, more than 2,000 years ago. In more Puritan cultures like the United States, they are still often associated with rebellion, although that meaning has eroded significantly over the last 20 years. As Penn State professor of anthropology Nina Jablonski wrote in her book Skin: A Natural History, "On a global scale, tattoos are more common now than they ever have been before."

Hemingson collected thousands of portraits of tattooed individuals for his "Tattoo Project," which, if it's any indication, proves that this trend is here to stay.

In his artist's statement, Kovats notes that there is often a complex intersection between the art of the tattoo and the identity of the person who commissioned it. Indeed, Kovats ended up changing the original concept of the project "to try to give each person within the 'whole' a story of their own. The piece evolved from a 'before and after' showcase of tattoo art to a story about the people who are under the cover of their tattoos."