LONDON — The artwork displayed on the paint-chipped walls of the Happy Sailor tattoo parlor in East London is as everlasting as a Van Gogh. But they’re not to be hung on any wall. The one-off designs by 30 artists, who include fashion illustrator Julie Verhoeven, Gavin Turk, Wim Delvoye, Adam McEwen and Sally Barker, are meant to remain on show forever — on the skin of the collector, that is.
“I’m offering free artwork, but you essentially have to commit to it for the rest of your life,” says Richard Adamson, who organizes exhibitions for a London art collective known as Another Roadside Attraction.
“I’m questioning the value of art,” he adds over the hissing of tattoo needles at the salon. “These are potentially priceless works, but you can’t sell them. You’re stuck with them.”
The show, which runs until Jan. 12, is called “Chaim Soutine,” a name taken from the Roald Dahl short story “Skin” about a destitute man who meets a nasty end because of the valuable tattoo on his back.
Adamson, who had never even been inside a tattoo parlor before organizing the show, said those opting for the tattooing thus far are mostly people in the fine arts. In terms of the illustrations, Verhoeven shows a girl being barbecued; Scott King drew Ian Curtis as Jesus Christ, and Bruno Musterberg designed a replica of an organ tissue donor card.
Barker, a sculptor whose tattoo shows a medal, a ribbon and a globe with the words “I am the Sally Barker empire,” said her first thought was: “Who the hell would want to do that with my design? A tattoo is for life — unless you want to go through the hideous process of having it removed.”
Adamson is paying for both the show and the tattooing through sponsorships. He’s waiting for Charles Saatchi, the voracious London-based collector and promoter of edgy, British art, to walk through the doors of the Happy Sailor. But he’s not holding his breath.
“We’re getting a young crowd in here, a lot of art students,” he says. “We have had some posh old ladies come by, but they leave quite quickly.”