Written in Ink

Brett Leigh Dicks, The Independent

April 24, 2008

At first glance, UCSB art professor Kip Fulbeck’s latest book, Permanence: Tattoo Portraits, might give the illusion of being simply an art monograph with an ink-on-skin theme. But while tattoos are what these subjects have in common, Permanence is most importantly a study of the personalities that lie beneath the decorated skin.

From porn stars to concentration camp survivors, the book explores the range of people who are compelled to paint themselves indelibly, and the countless reasons behind permanently adorning the body in ink.

What’s the attraction to tattoos and the reasoning behind the book?

I am extensively tattooed myself, and I have always been very interested in the culture. Even though it has gotten bigger and bigger in this country—there are 45 million people in this country with tattoos now—people don’t realize what a long history is involved in tattooing and how many different reasons there are behind getting tattooed.

How did your interest in tattooing unfold?

I had wanted tattoos since I was really young, but having a Chinese mother [meant] that was never going to happen! So I waited until I was in my mid thirties to start.

I went to about 50 different tattoo studios and talked to many different people and read all these books, but I could not find the right person. At some point, I realized the author of a bunch of those books was a tattoo artist himself. I went to visit him and he started to work on me.

How does your own tattoo art serve you?

I just think it is stunningly beautiful. I went a very traditional route. I have a traditional Japanese backpiece and traditional sleeves, and that very much appealed to me. But I always think it is a very individual decision.

That’s why this book isn’t about great tattoos. There is some amazing work in there, but there is some really shoddy work, too. The book is about how people express their individuality by marking their body.

The book seems to be more about the people than the tattoos—how did that theme develop?

A couple years ago, I did a book called Part Asian, 100% Hapa, which is the same format: photographs of people and their own stories about themselves. It’s about people who are multiracial like me. In that book, people responded to the question, “What are you?”

This book is the same format. But neither book is really about what people think they are. People think the first book is about racial identity and this book is about tattoos. I think they’re both about individual stories.

I thought one of the most profound sections of the book was the story of a concentration camp survivor.

That was a very profound experience for me, too. When I photographed her, Eva Brown, she showed me a photograph that she has of her family who all died in the camps. When I went there, I was worrying about things like an overdue Visa bill and an oil change for my car—really trivial things. Then she showed me that photograph of her family who were all gone.

I had to tell her this book was going to have porn stars and Hells Angels and heavy-metal rock stars in it. I wanted to make sure she was comfortable being in that sort of company. She simply said that it’s her life’s mission to show the world this tattoo. So she had no qualms at all.

And the Paul Stanley section was a revelation, too. Were you surprised that a hard rock god would have something so subtle and discrete?

I was surprised about that, too, but it was like that for a lot of those rock stars. I really pushed hard to get Dave Mustaine from Megadeth, but he has no tattoos! Zakk Wylde? No tattoos. I mean, none. And I just thought, you’ve got to be kidding me!