French tattoo 'king' struggles for recognition of his art

French tattoo artist Tin-Tin poses in his tattoo parlor in Paris on March 2, 2016.
French tattoo artist Tin-Tin poses in his tattoo parlor in Paris on March 2, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - The undisputed "king" of French tattoo artists says his industry is struggling to win recognition as an art form on a par with painting or music.

"Everything proves that we are artists according to the Unesco definition," said Tin-Tin, whose clients have included fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, the rapper Joey Starr and tennis legend Yannick Noah.

The main organiser of a world-class tattoo expo that wrapped up on Sunday (March 6), he quotes the Unesco definition of an artist verbatim - "any person who creates... and who considers his artistic creation to be an essential part of his life, who contributes in this way to the development of art and culture."

In France, those designated as artists - painters, as well as photographers, writers and composers - are able to charge greatly reduced VAT rates to their customers.

"For now, (the government is) killing us, considering us as simple merchants," said Tin-Tin.

The founder and head of the National Union of Tattoo Artists, Tin-Tin has also launched an online petition that has gathered more than 14,000 signatures.

In 2014, Paris's indigenous art museum Quai Branly recruited Tin-Tin as an adviser for an exhibition on tattooing that drew 700,000 visitors.

He said the only thing in the way of winning recognition as artists is that tattoo artists "create on the skin".

"It's a real paradox, but we will win one day," he said.

Held at the Parc de la Villette in the northeast of the French capital, the tattoo expo Mondial du Tatouage attracted 360 tattoo artists from 35 countries from Bulgaria to Thailand, the Netherlands to Japan and some 30,000 visitors.

"It's a very prestigious convention, I would say probably one of the top five conventions in the world," said an exhibitor from Puerto Rico who goes by the name Fibs.

"So it's very honourable to be here, to be part of these great artists," he said of the fair, whose poster featured work by prominent Japanese tattoo artist Hide Ichibay.

Like just about everywhere else in the world, tattooing is no longer just for sailors, soldiers and bikers in France, where a recent poll found that the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds reporting having a tattoo has doubled to one in five since 2010.

And from around 15 tattoo parlours in 1982, France now counts more than 1,500.

Tin-Tin said he got his first tattoo as a teenager to get out of ballroom dancing contests that his parents were forcing him to enter.

Among myriad trends on display at the fair, hyper-realism is in at the moment, said Tin-Tin, who has a huge Japanese art-inspired fish tattooed on his back and dragons adorn his arms up to the shoulders.

"There are more and more incredible artists who do tattoos like photos, with an extraordinary graphic quality." Japanese-style and Polynesian tribal are still strong trends however.

Then there is "trash polka" invented by German duo Simone Pfaff and Volko Merschky, a mix of realist and graphic elements in red and black, usually covering a torso.

Tattoo fashion presents a paradox, Tin-Tin said: "Fashion is by definition ephemeral, while tattoos are permanent."