Like previously blogged artist David Hochbaum, Jon Todd is an artist who likes messy-hands work. He outlines his painting, begins working on details, then takes a sander to those details, roughs them up, paints over them and etches back through the top layer to the paint below. He'll screen print over parts, wallpaper others, and pull out a sharpie to make a point somewhere. So the history of the piece is like the history of your life, the history told on your skin in a long, intertwined ink-tale of tattoos, the history of your surroundings told in the clothes you're wearing, the accent and rhythm of your speech, the tilt of your head and the fluttering gestures of your fingers when you keep your mouth shut: the details of your life, carefully worked upon and then smothered by events, re-worked, and then reworked, and then abused and reworked some more. These ladies are not ladies who grew up in elegant homes with lots of help getting dressed--they are tough, thick-skinned, and their eyes draw you into another world, a world they have control over.
“The Snake Handler”
Notice that in the “Snake Handler,” the snakes she’s handling are firmly embedded in the rather large biceps of the rather large man behind her. She looks pretty calm, all things considered.
About his process of creating a work of art, Jon Todd says:
I start with a naïve sketch so I can change things constantly. I love making “happy mistakes.” I am not afraid to kick the crap out of a painting, if it makes the end result unique and pleasing to the viewer. For example, I've spent hours painting detailed tattoos – realizing it was too clean – and then ran it through the belt sander, which made an awesome smearing effect. I've also poured rubbing alcohol, scraped, gouged, and even lit my painting on fire with a blowtorch.
You’ll notice many of his characters, like the ones above, and the guy whose snakes are being handled above that, wearing masks like those of the Mexican Wrestlers. In the Mexican “Lucha libre,” these masks are worn as archetypes, symbolic of the character the wrestler is invoking, the spirit under which he is fighting. Taking off an opponent’s mask is akin to sacrilege, and can result in the banning of the the wrestler who performed the act. Here, the masks are permanently embedded in the skin in a brightly colored tattoo--not the basic colors of the usual masks, but a vivid, variegated display of paint or little mosaic tile more reminiscent of the ancient, glimmering aztec monuments. A fusion of sorts between a modern cultural mask and an ancient one.
Jon Todd’s work is full of stories that spill across the background and onto the skin of his characters in intricate tattoos. His tattoos are a wild cross of Russian prison tattoos, the Japanese irezumi, and Mexican symbolism. In the Russian prison symbolism (see the example below), each point on a star represents a year in a Russian prison. Skulls are worn by murderers. An epaulet refers to time in solitary confinement. The cat tells us his wearer spent his past life as a thief, with several cats together marking him as member of a ring of thieves. A cross protests slavery, bondage. Barbed wire across the forehead means what you might think: the head wearing it will never be free.
But it’s not only the symbols of the criminal element he includes in his stories. Here we have the mosaic-tiling and halo style of ancient Byzantine artwork, the grinning colored skulls celebrating the dark joys of the one day of the year Mexicans can reconnect and commune with their dead, a beautiful, Edo-style Japanese woman in a kimono, even a Bodhisattva.
And although Irezumi is something very tightly associated with the Japanese mafia, or Yakuza, and though for many, many years, body-tattooing was used in Japan as a form of punishment, there is also, as always, another side to the story. According to artelino,
In 1827 the ukiyo-e artist Kuniyoshi Utagawa published the first 6 designs of the 108 Heroes of the Suikoden. The Suikoden were something like ancient Robin Hoods - honorable bandits. The story is based on a classic Chinese novel - Shui-Hi-Chuan, that dates from the 13th and 14th century. The novel was first translated into Japanese in 1757 by Okajima Kanzanion. At the turn of the 18th to the 19th century the story was published with illustrations by Katsushika Hokusai. The novel of the 108 honorable bandits was very popular in Japan and caused a kind of Suikoden craze among Japanese townspeople.
Kuniyoshi's Suikoden ukiyo-e designs show the heroes in colorful, full body tattoos. Japanese tattoo prints and tattoo art in general then became stylish. ...It produced a kind of craze like the Beatlemania in the sixties. Everything connected with the Suikoden was suddenly iki--cool, trendy...
The story of the Suikoden and the subsequent print series by Kuniyoshi was also the ignition powder for the fashion of Japanese body tattoos. Tattoos became popular among people of the lower classes like construction workers, prostitutes and the infamous fire wardens. The latter were admired by the public for their courage. But they had also a reputation of wild, drunken ruffians who could become more dangerous than the fires.
Just as in life, there is a rough and ever-changing balance between what is seen as brave, and what is criminal; what is trash and what is art. A tattoo, in general a permanent mark on one’s body, tells a particular detail of one’s life story through all those phases, meaning the wearer has to be prepared to own that story regardless of the changes in social mores and opinions. And it is perhaps from that pride, from that refusal to hide scars, scary tales, demons, crimes and misdemeanors--from that insistence on one’s own story of oneself above all other stories--comes the challenge in the eyes of these ladies.
“Enter the Dragon”
“Two Samurai Women”
In the image below, for example, the same woman wears a military uniform, typically representing law and order, yet pinned to her breast is the same prisoner star we saw amongst her tattoos in the less-dressed version of her above. Still, she wears the Byzantine halo, signifying a holy person or saint. And then there’s her hair, a rich shimmering of snakeskin, which itself could stand for any number of things, depending on the cultural perspective of the viewer--or even just the cultures represented in the rich symbolism of this particular painting: there is, in the Byzantine Christian mythology, the master of deception who ended our residence in the Garden of Eden; in Mexican history, the Mayan Gucumatz, the plumed serpent god that created humanity; in Japanese history, it is often conflated with the dragon, a protector of jewels, pearls, and wisdom? According to Wikipedia, “The serpent was a very important social and religious symbol, revered by the Maya. Maya mythology describes serpents as being the vehicles by which celestial bodies, such as the sun and stars, cross the heavens. The shedding of their skin made them a symbol of rebirth and renewal.” In medicine, the snake’s venom is a thing to contend with, however, a certain amount of it could bring expanded consciousness or even healing, and the intertwined snakes that now form the symbol of the medical community come from the rod of Asclepius, an ancient healer whose symbol was itself linked back to the staff of Hermes--who was not only the god of magic, including smooth speech and ingenious invention, but also of thieves, again showing us the many layers present in a single story. So here, her hair is wrapped in snakeskin, or is made up of her own shedding skin, which could mean that she’s duplicitous, a speaker with a forked tongue, or that she’s shedding one layer of her life to enter the next, or that she’s shedding this life, life itself, in order to be reborn into the next. Maybe the shedding of her skin is the step where she peels this story of her life off completely, and enters that ethereal realm (heaven?) where she is chained to no identity, no story, and can begin again.