Generation Ink’s portraits of tattoos

An elegant cursive typeface announces the title of Generation Ink. The looping curlicues and conjoined letters suggest a flow of ink made evident in the pages that follow.

The photographs are shot in black-and-white, and mostly the subjects stand before the camera allowing you to view them from head to toe.

In choosing to shoot them this way, photographer Paul Nathan draws your gaze to their facial expressions, pose and the level of comfort with which they stand ­partially or completely unclothed before the camera.

The subjects are mostly twentysomethings, their bodies youthful, their facial expressions insouciant, ­carefree, in some cases joyful. In common is that they are all denizens of Williamsburg, a suburb of ­Brooklyn, New York. In the book’s introduction, Nathan’s wife, South African-born journalist Nadine Rubin Nathan, writes of the “marked” difference on the skin of fellow commuters ­catching the El train from Union Square in Manhattan to Brooklyn’s Bedford Avenue, where they ­“display full sleeves of tattoos, mottos are printed on to chests or forearms, and illustrated worlds unravel on calves.”

On the pages, the tattoos vary in size and subject. There are cartoon characters and mythical creatures, Goya etchings and geometric flowers, jungle scenes and religious icons. The texts declaim “Freedom”, or dictums like “No guts, no glory”.

The ubiquity of tattoo art is ­interesting given that up until 1997 tattoos were banned in New York City after an alleged hepatitis B ­outbreak in the early 1960s.

Rubin Nathan writes that today it is enjoying unprecedented popularity among people who have never worked in the circus, belonged to a motorcycle gang or spent time in prison. Instead, they are ­members of the creative and ­business classes.

For some the choice of tattoo is a highly significant act, and for ­others it’s a more random experience — the result of “an irresistible $13 special on Valentine’s Day”.

Tattoos don’t always come that cheaply. Clinton Beahm, a nurse, admits his body art has cost $9 000 so far, though for many others they traded something special for it. Twenty-one-year-old chef Eve Pilar Pappalardo says: “The majority were done on the barter system — the use of my car for a weekend; the use of my heart for a year and a half …”

They were asked “Does it hurt?” and most replied “Hell yeah!”. Do they care what it will look like in 50 years? Hell no! Prissy Daugherty, a 28-year-old hairstylist, says: “What am I going to do when I’m 80? Um … be 80 and cooler than you? I don’t know. I don’t think that far ahead.”

Nathan, originally from New Zealand, started the project of capturing Generation Ink after he rang the doorbell of his Brooklyn neighbour and got treated to an eyeful — a body tattoo that took the artist more than 100 hours to finish. “What I admire in my subjects is the freedom they have to express themselves and live in the now,” he says.  

Generation Ink, published by Pelluceo, is available from Book Lounge, Cape Town, or on for R257

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