It is hard to pin down where to start. There is no definitive beginning. Probably the most significant place was in art school. I had several friends who were already tattooing. One of which was constantly telling me that was what I really needed to be doing. We all knew I wasn’t really going to do graphic design in the normal sense. However, I was stubborn. I finish what I start. I finished the design degree after brushing off the tattoo idea as unpractical. A few years later when I went to Japan for the first time, I not only got my first Japanese tattoos, but I recognized the extent of what you could do with tattooing as an art form. I wanted to do that. I wanted to take what I had learned about all the Ukiyo-e imagery that fed the Japanese style and learn to do that.
Eventually, after a couple years in the tattoo industry, my entire bread and butter was based on fixing bad tattoos. I never got to do very many actual Japanese pieces. That realization coupled with several other factors led me to take a break and go back to school. That break would, unfortunately, end up being permanent. I would not go back to tattooing. I would end up pursuing a doctorate in an area I was almost equally passionate about, linguistics.
It seems like a bit of a roller coaster career path. However, to me, it makes perfect sense. Everything flows together eventually. As I finished my Ph.D., I found that the art foundation from my undergraduate degree coupled well with my masters in ESL. I found myself dealing with creating ESL curriculum for art schools. Everything was connected and flowed together well.
As I have begun moving back towards a creative path, I began painting again. This is where the real challenge started. I have all this tattoo imagery in my head. I have all this Japanese imagery that yields specific symbolic images in my head. These are great fuel rods to thrust into your creative forge. However, I also still had this line-based tattoo drawing style ingrained in me. I couldn’t break it.
It wasn’t a matter of unlearning. I still find clean lines to be valuable. I don’t want to lose that. But I had to push past that to break free and be able to move with fewer boundaries. That is where the expressionism came in. I went back to my beloved books of Willem De Kooning. I wanted to stop being clean and get messy. I wanted expressive lines. So I began doing tattoo images in an expressive manner.
This was working fine until I spent one afternoon smoking a cigar and writing a list of symbolic imagery on my wall. I used a lot of Japanese images already. My sketchbooks from Japan are full of them. I had especially become fond of using Japanese cloud patterns, wave patterns, and fire as backgrounds to paintings. I became more detached in how I approached them. Then the fun element kicked in. I began streamlining the patterns into a more uniform pattern based on what is commonly known as the Golden Mean. The expressionist lines were masking the totally mathematical uniformity of my backgrounds. It masked them so well that only one friend was able to recognize and comment on the Fibonacci Patterns in my paintings. I’m still proud of her.
Then I began to organize my more overt symbols. Dragonflies or “tombo” were a lighthearted foil against the darker Japanese centipedes or “mukadai”. Other elements began to seep in with origins ranging from tattoo images to medieval alchemy transmutation circles. All of which flows together into what I like to call Esoteric Expressionism.
Note: I’ll be discussing each of these symbolic elements in future posts.