Primitive Tattoos. Primitive Art. Naïve Art. Dziary. Наколки. Brutal Icon Power.

The Rivers of Ink

I wear a dozen drawings on my body. As an 11 year old boy, I would read, ears burning, Bradbury's "Illustrated Man” – but a few years ago, when a friend of mine Piotr Rypson suggested that I could take up documenting the generation of Git-Men* at first my reaction was half-hearted. I regarded photographing tattoos as a quite obvious thing to do – the market is filled to the brim with glossy magazines dedicated to skin designs and patterns; I used to associate taking portraits of old lags with the sepia toned photography of the 90s, which, to put it mildly, doesn’t fill me with wild enthusiasm. But life, as usual, has run its course. My current adventure with tats was detonated when I encountered a sailor in the spring of 2007. I was walking back home from the Hel Peninsula beach, it was rather chilly, I was in the middle of pouring sand out of my shoes, when I saw an incredibly crooked whale adorning a burly forearm just before my eyes. It was love at first sight. Since that moment, I’ve reacted to the slightest trace of dead blue pigment showing from under a cuff just as Euglena reacts to light. I scan the world around me in search of ink.

I’ve been devoted to anthropology of pop culture for many years now – I record hundreds of bizarre mutations, scattered around the universe of plastic, rubber or concrete. I’m continually learning beauty from scratch. My fascinations involve post-folk and neo-primitivism. Pop, regardless of its numerous flaws, has one fundamental virtue – there’s no place for anything insipid, only the real potentials can pass the trial by fire. Tattoos hold a special position in this context – inks are not ephemeral like the majority of cheap mass market Chinese polyethylene wonders or video flicks. There’s nothing impermanent to them, unless of course we consider our biological existence as such. Tattoos are forever, even those done completely mindlessly. Only the few of those inked, tormented by horrible nightmares writhing over their bodies, reach for radical measures to remove them, with saltpeter or pumice, or cover the whole areas of skin with an inked over “night”, however, the marks will always remain.

I love crude drawings, their raw expression. That said, I don’t downgrade the artistic tattoo, but there’s an unbelievable weight of authenticity in the scribbles made only with needles tied with a thread. Fantasies and hopes manifest themselves in such tattoos in a very convincing manner. I am deeply moved by dreams of adventures, deep-sea voyages, exotic paradises that spin in the courtyard, near a carpet-beating stand, at a prison cell, or in a military unit. Pictures created under the influence of some internal imperative, sincere even when they pretend, are loaded with power. Their potential is further amplified by the ostentatious disrespect for sacrum – some of the bodies are scribbled all over like walls in a public toilet. Not without reason, prison inks are sometimes called "dirty drafts". It’s magma in which only the absolutely basic thoughts and feelings bubble: Hatred and Revenge. First Love, Great Inseparable Love, Ann, Kate, Sarah. I Love Freedom, Ladies Only, Beware Whom You Trust – all genuine declarations, credo, professions of faith – the rest is just superfluous.

At first, I used to seek only what is the simplest, the most rudimentary; as time passed I started to register refined cases of homemade inks as well. My bestiary, has been dominated by criminals, it wasn’t a conscious decision – spontaneous acts of visual naughtiness fascinate me regardless of their origin, but the bearers are often ashamed of the mistakes of their youth. It turned out that the hardest thing is to make the owner of one lopsided heart or anchor let it be photographed. On the other hand, recidivists are in most of the cases reconciled with the stories of their life – shame gets replaced with pride, a natural decision, as it seems. The blokes who experienced 15+ year long sentences have the least qualms about unbuttoning their shirts, dropping trousers – showing their backs, shoulders, thighs, calves adorned with hieroglyphs. Polish criminal tattoo is far less impressive than the Gulag tattoos catalogued by Bladaev, yet Poland is a small country in comparison with the Russia, so there's less criminals and the maximum security prisons are smaller, however terrible as well.

In the whole process, a peculiar experience was to cross a certain boundary of contact, the taboo of physicality – many times while taking photos I had to touch the hands that stole, harmed or killed and turn them to better light, the fact that my purpose was clearly defined certainly helped: I’m trying to build an archive of a specific era, of culture which is perpetually changing, despite the fact that some of the motives that are characteristic to it are going to stay universal forever. Together with the social acceptance of decorative tattoo the clumsy brutal pictograms are in decline. The osmosis between the prison and freedom tattoo is getting more and more visible. My heroes seem to understand this fact, they know what Oldschool means and this identity fills them with pride. As for myself, what they get from me is respect – even if their deeds need to be condemned, their uncompromising nature deserves it. Rivers of ink have hollowed these bodies out. The story of their lives is written in pictograms on their own skin. It’s the History of Art as well – vanitas vanitatum, but at the same time expressionism in its purest form.

Maurycy Gomulicki, México DF, 31th January 2012

* members of a 1970s Polish subculture inspired by the criminal underworld
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