Guy Aitchison and Michele Wortman
At Hyperspace Studios, a private atelier in southern Illinois, Guy Aitchison and Michele Wortman receive collectors from around the world who want to be tattooed by two of the industry’s pioneers of contemporary tattoo styles. After more than two decades of work, Aitchison continues to innovate and expand the artistic vocabulary of the biomechanical and bioorganic tattoo genre, while Wortman takes a feminine approach with painterly floral-form body sets. The husband and wife team are also renowned for promoting fine art and education in the tattoo community. In this interview, they share how their distinctive artist styles developed, some of the controversy behind their approaches, and how one can be a better artist through attitude adjustment.
INKED: You’re both renowned for your distinctive styles. How would you describe them?
GUY AITCHISON: I work in abstract style—a lot of different abstract styles—but generally it’s earned the definition of biomechanical. This can take many forms as long as it’s a nonrepresentational kind of tattooing that flows with the human form. it could be something that is either kind of robotic—imagine a Transformers style—or it could be something a bit more organic, like an alien exoskeleton with all kinds of crazy textures. or sometimes you get a mix. People who get tattoos from me generally just want to get tattooed. a lot of people feel like they need to have a pretext for their tattoo that symbolizes something, but people who have collected enough often will arrive at a place where they are getting tattooed because they’re getting tattooed. They like tattoos. They are looking to be decorated. That’s the number one rule of this style. Make it attractive, make it flow well with the body, make it sort of exaggerate the musculature a bit. it’s meant to be flattering but also meant to instill a sense of, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that before.” When people come across it, they should be stopped in their tracks a bit.
When you first started tattooing and developing this style in 1988, it was really new and innovative.
AITCHISON: Well, I wasn’t the first person to do this stuff. I was attracted to H.r. Giger’s paintings. That was part of what got me interested in tattooing initially. I wanted to tattoo stuff like that. For those not familiar, Giger designed the sets and monsters for Ridley Scott’s Alien movie. It has this look that just has a natural flow, great depth, and a sense of realism to it. I thought it would look great on skin. in my first year of tattooing, I came across a few people who were actually doing Giger paintings as tattoos, and a few had done a really nice job of it. It definitely proved the point that it was a viable style. I then started hanging around a few of these tattooers: Eddie Deutsche, Greg Kulz, aaron cain, and Marcus Pacheco. These are the ones who were really exploring the abstract style at the time. We started working on each other and collaborating in various different mediums, and then diverged away from being Giger clones, and each of us looked to redefine what we were seeing. In particular, I was looking for ways to make it look stronger as a tattoo. I was working with bigger shapes that flowed with the body as the structure for the whole thing. and then you have basically this infinite variety of textures and effects, lighting, things that you can apply to it. So it was definitely influenced by H.R. Giger and by these other tattooers I worked with, but at this particular juncture, 23 years later, it’s certainly taken on its own look.
Michele, how did your style develop?
MICHELE WORTMAN: My style originated from being a collector and not necessarily resonating with the early work I collected. I started to assess it more and realized that I wanted something that was more unified, that had less weight to it, and that reflected more of how I was feeling rather than the styles that were available at the time.
Around when was that?
WORTMAN: It was around 1995 when I first got a half sleeve. I know that’s not very much coverage, but at the time it seemed it, because you didn’t really see women with the coverage you see now, and it felt like a big step. Then I got a chest piece a year later. My work had a fair amount of black in it, and I wanted something that felt lighter and a little freer. So I started getting lasered, getting rid of all the black in my ink so that I could reconstruct it, and during that period of time, I became a tattoo artist.
Would you say your style is more feminine?
WORTMAN: It’s interesting you should say that because originally I had wanted a half sleeve of flowers, and this girl looked at me, rolled her eyes, and said, “You would get that. How typical of you.” That bothered me, so I decided I would rebel against my feminine nature and get architecture, which is very masculine in my opinion, very manmade. The fact that i rebelled against my feminine nature in the beginning only to come back to it later was an interesting lesson for me—to be comfortable and enjoy things that might be associated with having feminine qualities and not try to fight it and be someone I’m not. That had a lot to do with the energy i was putting into my tattoo work, and that became my defining style.
Black is really part of the old-school tattoo tradition, black and bold. Have you ever been criticized for not following these tattoo tenets?
WORTMAN: Absolutely. I’ve been heavily criticized for my style. I’ve had people come up to me at tattoo conventions, slam my portfolio down, and tell me that what I was doing wasn’t tattooing. So I had a steep hill to climb, and I still feel like I’m climbing it. But if you believe in what you do, you need to stick with it.
Do you have a response to the technical critiques?
WORTMAN: I do have a response. Early on there was some validity to their assessment because I was just learning to tattoo and my work wasn’t as developed as it is now. It was definitely very experimental, not using black outlines. The black has a boldness to it, and it does seem that it stays in the skin better, so I can see their point. The thing is, work that is soft in contrast with a limited use of black needs multiple passes. If someone has a piece that doesn’t look so hot, it’s not necessarily because it won’t work. You really need to get that saturation and develop contrast over multiple sessions, since you don’t have a strong, bold line holding your design in place. It’s a different approach to tattooing, so it has its own flavor of rebellion in there, even though it may be viewed as a stereotypical feminine aesthetic.
AITCHISON: It’s a rebellion within a rebellion.
You often hear artists lament over the “good ol’ days of tattooing” and that some of the magic today has been lost. What are your thoughts on this?
AITCHISON: You know how when you’re really into a band but no one’s really heard of them yet, just you and a couple of your friends, then suddenly they blow up and everyone in the world has heard of them? The original fans are like, “I liked them better before they were famous.” That’s what’s happening now. I don’t think there’s any room to grumble. Anyone who has been in this business long enough, and is doing a good job of it, is doing better now because of the tattoo renaissance. And if they’re not, that means they are not doing very good tattoos.
WORTMAN: I don’t think it has lost anything. It is gaining something. There’s a huge diversity within tattooing itself. The look of tattoos is changing. There are a lot more styles that are being put out there that are amazing. Also, a lot of the women I tattoo feel more comfortable being heavily tattooed. They are going for an overall look that’s cohesive, not fragmented. I feel we are a part of this evolutionary process. It’s exciting to be a part of it and see where we can go next.
You’ve both worked hard to promote tattoo education and help others improve their work. Has there ever been a backlash with other tattooers questioning why you’re putting all that out there?
AITCHISON: There hasn’t been a backlash per se, and part of the reason is that education in our industry has become a standard. It’s not just a couple of us doing this. Go to any major convention and there are seminars happening. The thing we all kind of agree on amongst ourselves is that we are not showing this stuff to the general public. For example, in our store on tattooeducation.com, we have a lot of items that have a red flag on them. That means we only ship them to established tattoo shops. That’s the way any of the above ground tattoo suppliers work as well. It’s the way it has been set it up and the way we police ourselves to make it hard for people to get in without going through the proper channels. of course, there are always ways around it. But your average jerk who isn’t willing to put in the time, effort, and struggle to do well is not going to make it through.
Part of this education has been promoting fine art within the tattoo community, like you do with your live painting events. Why is that fine art component so important to tattooing?
WORTMAN: When you’re collecting from an artist, you’re collecting a piece of art. I think when you work in a second medium like painting, you can create a resonance from your other types of art [that goes] into your tattooing. So the more that we encourage others to explore a second medium, the more they can bring their own individual style into tattooing and hopefully diversify it even further—not to mention that the more fluid you are with a second medium, the more you bring that fluidity into tattooing.
AITCHISON: Definitely an experience in multiple mediums can make it much easier to learn how to draw. really, when you think about it, tattooing is a very difficult art form, one of the most difficult. So how can being a better artist in general possibly not make you a better tattoo artist? As far as what kind of medium, i don’t think it really matters. Color pencil, watercolor, sculpture—you don’t have the same limitations as on skin. You don’t have a client telling you what they want, you can make mistakes, and you can figure out what your thing is. In the course of it, you can learn more about yourself and bring it back to your tattooing. There are people who have come up to me and said, “Show me how to do a better tattoo.” If you want to be a better tattoo artist, become a more sensitive person, become smarter, turn off your darn TV. But what they are hoping for is a bag of tricks. It isn’t a bag of tricks. it’s a whole outlook. It’s a whole lifestyle.
What projects are you working on now?
WORTMAN: I am working on a long-term project: It’s a book about the work that I do. I’m documenting the women I tattoo and their collection, starting from the very beginning to the end results—their journey. All the pieces I’m taking on right now are pieces that will be a part of the book. When the book is done, it will be a 20-year project. I’d like the book to be out in 2020. I like the number.
AITCHISON: Over the past three years, myself and a group of other artists who specialize in biomech have created somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 finished full-color sleeve designs for a book project—The Biomech Encyclopedia—which I’m hoping to release by the end of 2012. It’s going to be a massive book on abstract tattoos, and it will touch on every part of the bandwidth that it can. It’s an online collaborative process in which we kind of mix and match each other’s work, and it’s all amazingly good stuff.
You’ve done a lot of collaborations.
AITCHISON: I’ve collaborated a lot in the course of my career, with dozens and dozens of people. If you want to open your doors and get out of your normal habit—because, as artists, we are deeply habitual—try working with another artist. It can be a great experience.
I assume the two of you collaborate on a lot of things as well.
AITCHISON: We’ve done many collaborations on skin and canvas. We’re collaborating on a child right now. [Laughs.] Sometimes when one of us is working on a design for a client and we’re trying to decide something, we’ll sit down and tinker with each other’s computer simulations; we’ll talk over ideas with each other. So there’s a lot of collaboration, as in any partnership, on every level.