02/18/2012 08:03 am ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

Tattoo Art On Display At Two Detroit Area Shows

Bikers love them. Sailors, too. And now the art form that once sprung from traditional Polynesian culture to become a worldwide phenomenon is making its way from tattoo shops into two Detroit galleries.

The 323 East and Start Gallery both have tattoo art shows coming up this month, giving tattooists a chance to take a break from the human canvas and instead show their work on studio walls.

"Clean as a Whistle" starts Saturday at Royal Oak's 323 East Gallery. Mark Heggie, a nationally-known artist who co-owns two local tattoo shops, Big Top in Utica and Signature in Ferndale, organized the show. He assembled more than 100 pieces of art, most of them watercolors. But there are also some added curiosities, like a piece with a casket-shaped frame.


Heggie said the similar subject matter and techniques used by the artists lend a cohesiveness to the exhibit. While each artist brings his or her own personal vision and style, they are united by a common sensibility of tattoo aesthetics.

"Most of it's based on iconic tattoo imagery: eagles, tigers, snakes, flowers. We take that stuff and tell a story with them," Heggie said. "They're all water color paintings done in a style that's very forumulaic. ... Even with eight artists, there's a technical unity."

Artists Tyler Hemmingsen, Garth Hixon, Davey James, Nick Kelly, Dan Rick, Sam Wolfe and Heggie all have pieces on display. Combined, they have more than 100 years of tattoo experience.

Jesse Cory, who runs the 323 East gallery with his partner Dan Armand, is a tattoo enthusiast himself. He said he has a solid appreciation for the skill of the craftsmen involved in the show.

"They come from the same two tattoo shops. And when you get a tattoo from Signature or Big Top, you know what you're getting. It's custom tattoo art," Cory said, "It's unique, hand-drawn and special to you."

Cory said that 323 East shares a "counter-cultural" sensibility with the Start Gallery, and that he wasn't surprised about the timing and similarity of the tattoo art shows. Along with the upcoming Motor City Tatoo Expo, Cory said Detroit will see a "perfect storm" of tattoo-related events.

The Start Gallery's show, which begins Feb. 24, is called "Beyond the Machine" -- a reference to the ink and needle tool used for tattoos. It will showcase tattoo artists' creative production outside their tattoo gun-slinging day jobs.

And where the 323 East show draws from a local pool of artists with similar tastes, "Beyond the Machine" will spotlight work from across the tattoo spectrum. Gallery owner Jason Reed isn't a collector of body art -- he has only one tattoo, of a friend who passed away. So he hopes the show will appeal to both the ink enthusiast and the average gallery-goer.

Reed said he expected an eclectic crowd when he put out the call for submissions to the exhibit.

"You never know when you're going to do a group show," he said. "You wonder what's going to come across your eyes and where it's coming from and who its coming from."

"Beyond the Machine" features nearly 80 works by more than 25 artists. Some are local, like Heggie and black-and-white tattoo master Bob Tyrell, and others are up-and -coming national talents like Monk from Ohio and David Hale from Athens, Ga.

Their work is certainly diverse, with media including oil paint, watercolors, pen and ink, colored pencils and Cray-Pas. There are also a couple of sculptural pieces by local artist Sarah Norton.

Reed said he liked this year's submissions so much that he plans to make "Beyond the Machine" an annual show. He also plans to offer a special online opening that will feature articles related to the show and a chance to chat one-one-one with the artists.

And though the tattoo art shows came about independently, they won't exactly be in competition. Heggie said that artists in the local tattoo scene are happy to support one another.

"The tattooing community has a sense of camaraderie," he said. "All the guys working here all know each other."

"Clean as a Whistle" will open with an artist reception on Saturday, Feb. 18 from 6 - 11 p.m. and will run through March 18. 323 East Gallery is located at 323 East Fourth Street in Royal Oak.

"Beyond the Machine" will open Friday, Feb. 24 from 6 - 11 p.m. The show runs through Saturday, March 3. Start Gallery is located at 206 E. Grand River in Detroit. Ages 18 and up.

See a preview from some of the artists featured in "Clean as a Whistle" below: