Does the Artist-Muse Relationship Apply to the Tattoo World?

Throughout nearly every physical medium within the art world, a muse is perceived as an artist’s creative soulmate and the source of limitless original inspiration. Whether you’re a cinephile or a consumer of classical art, the relationship between a creator and his muse has flourished throughout every caveat of cultivated art. And while there is no standard that dictates the source of connection that an artist and their inspiration engage in, the primary fixation of our society tends to skew toward romantic and sexual bonds. Great love affairs between an artist and his muse have existed over the course of many centuries and as the craft of tattooing has transitioned into the world of fine art, so has the concept of a muse. But what gravity does the word muse hold in the world of tattooing? How do we transcend the relationship between a tattooer and his master canvas into a finite form of tangible art? And what does it mean to wear the physical manifestation of your relationship on your body forever?

Photo by Peter Roessler, Models Bri Wyble and Trevor Dutch

Photo by Peter Roessler, Models Bri Wyble and Trevor Dutch

The word muse derives from the ancient Greek word mousa, which means “to think.” The nine muses first appeared in Greek mythology in the first century BC, and they were regarded in literature as the daughters of Zeus, the king of the gods, and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. They were seen as the physical embodiments of knowledge to artists of poetry, history, music, dance, comedy, and astronomy. Many Greek artists recall being visited by a particular muse, which led to fruitful creative expressionism through their given medium. The muses were further established in art themselves, first in early Greek and Roman sculpture, then later adapted by painters in the Italian Renaissance, Czech lithographer Alphonse Mucha, and even Walt Disney Pictures, a la Hercules.

Lithograph by Alphonse Mucha

Lithograph by Alphonse Mucha

In the context of classic and contemporary art, the term muse takes the human form and transcends the boundary between supernatural to reality. But just because the metaphysical veil of otherworldly goddesses has been lifted, it doesn’t make the relationship between an artist and his muse any less seductive. For centuries, artists have relied on physical human beings for endless creative inspirations and throughout history, many of these relationships have been brought to the forefront of popular culture. Thus, the public works that an artist creates in collaboration with his muse have allowed the masses the ability to peek inside the intimate, nuanced and personal lives of artist-muse relationships. Some of the most notable artist-muse relationships within the framework of fine-art include Salvador Dali and Gala, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, as well as Francis Bacon and George Dyer. Each of the aforementioned artists created numerous pieces that feature their partners throughout their lifetimes—with the latter two diverting from the cliched male artist and female muse dynamic. Cultures throughout the decades have had the privilege to understand the complex layers of these couples’ relationships through the lens of painting, perhaps gaining better insight than any biography could hope to provide.

Diego and I by Frida Kahlo

Diego and I by Frida Kahlo

Of course, while the term muse generally connotes fine-art, in a contemporary context we see the term used fluidly throughout film, music, dance, and fashion. For example, we can see the influence on Amber Rose’s relationship with Kanye West in his 2010 album, My Dark Twisted Fantasy. Additionally, we can peek at the personal-professional relationship between Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter through the numerous films Burton cast Carter in. In mentioning Burton, it’s important to understand that the relationship between an artist and a muse isn’t limited to being sexual or romantic. On the contrary, many of the most successful and prolific artist-muse relationships have been strictly professional—as seen through Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, Henri Matisse and Monique Bourgeois, as well as Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. However, any hopeless romantic will tell you that the soul bond between lovers is the most irresistible relationship to see played out by proxy of a muse.

Johnny Depp, Tim Burton and Helena Bonham-Carter on Set of Sweeney Todd

Johnny Depp, Tim Burton and Helena Bonham-Carter on Set of Sweeney Todd

And while we still see examples of the artist-muse relationship throughout popular culture, there is debate over whether it has made its way into the tattoo world. However, any fan of the sideshow scene will know that this dynamic is threaded within the fabric of modern American tattooing. Sideshows across the Western world promoted the ‘Tattooed Lady’ in their touring performances, with women such as Betty Broadbent, Artoria Gibbons, and Irene Woodward becoming alternative cultural sex symbols during the early 20th century. Many of these women world became heavily tattooed because they’d formed romantic relationships with their artists—with the artist-muse relationship working in tandem to promote tattooing throughout the world. This was arguably the case for Maud Wagner, an aerialist who went onto become the first female tattoo artist in America with the help of her husband, Gus.

Photo of Artoria Gibbons

Photo of Artoria Gibbons

However, in an age where there’s a tattoo shop around every corner and tattooed women aren’t presented alongside bearded ladies or conjoined twins, how has the relationship of an artist and his muse developed to accommodate the present tattoo scene? Well, let’s just look at it from a case-by-case basis. Alexandra and Jake Danielson are a Melbourne couple who tied the knot on September 22nd, 2018—however, their love story began over seven years ago. “I followed Jake on Instagram and thought he was a little hottie. I used his tattoo work as a sneaky way to like and comment on all of his photos,” shares Alexandra. “Eventually after some online chats, we finally met in Melbourne CBD and shared our first kiss under the lights of a 7/11 convenience store.” The two quickly formed a relationship and as an upcoming tattoo apprentice, Jake began tattooing his future wife once she turned 18. “The first tattoo I did on Alex was a Queen of Hearts themed lady on her upper arm. We did a fair few more tattoos pretty soon after, including her underbust and collarbone script, back of thighs, feet and a Barbie portrait on her hip. After that, we extended her upper arm into a sleeve.” Alex and Jake met during the beginning of his tattoo career, allowing him to practice and hone his skills on his muse. Today, Jake is a prominent face in the worldwide neo-traditional community and commits his time to tattooing extravagant bodysuits for his growing clientele in Melbourne. However, being married to Alexandra, he has the unique opportunity of seeing his progress up close and personal every single day. “It’s definitely different to seeing your other work on regular clients come in healed. Looking at it every day, I find myself picking it apart a lot and looking at things I can touch up during the next session.”

Photo by Peter Roessler, Models Bri Wyble and Trevor Dutch

Photo by Peter Roessler, Models Bri Wyble and Trevor Dutch

Meeting Jake early on in his career as an artist allowed Alexandra the opportunity to become heavily tattooed at a much faster rate and it also introduced her to some of Australia’s finest tattooers, whom she’s also collected work from. However, despite wearing his earlier work alongside art by tattooers with more technical training, she still holds his pieces in extremely high regard. “I like what he has done on me because each tattoo represents a time in our relationship. I remember how old we were, what we were doing with our lives and I don’t shy away from telling people what he did on me, but I also know that it is not a good representation of what he is capable of now.” This is the key component of what makes a relationship between a tattoo artist and his muse special bond, their love has been immortalized through a bound of flesh—not unlike a scar from a blood pact or a brand for fraternity ritual. Many tattoo artists will forget the names of their clients and vice versa, but this couple will never forget the bond they’ve made together through art.