The Fine Line

Where do the worlds of fine art and tattoo art meet, if at all? Is it in the art itself, or in the artist who creates it? What came first, the chicken or the tree falling in the forest? Apparently, having some experts clarify things wouldn’t hurt. Two artists, Krista Bursey and Joel Conroy, talk to Karyn Gray about their art, both fine and tattoo, and whether there’s really a line dividing them.

What seems like a million years ago, I drove my friend Kelly to get tattooed. I borrowed my parents’ car and we made the trek to New Hampshire–I was living in Massachusetts at the time, when tattooing was still illegal–to a tiny shop she had found in the phone book (remember pre-internet searching?) It was an adventure. I’d never met a tattoo artist. In fact, I’m not sure I knew any professional artists, period. While I loved art and was intrigued by the profession, it seemed an exclusive, alien vocation. That somewhere in the world young artists were thriving in all sorts of mediums – painting, designing, sculpting, even tattooing – was an idea that never occurred to me as a reality. The idea that tattoo art could be considered fine art, and that fine artists could also be tattooists, had never entered my mind. What I did think about, sitting in that tiny tattoo shop, was how scary it must be as a tattoo artist, with the pressure of literally leaving your mark on someone. Clichés swimming in my head, I considered how scary being any type of artist must be: hard work, financial insecurity, criticism, putting your work, and yourself, out there.

Krista Bursey, a Montreal-based freelance painter, illustrator and tattooist, offers her opinion on where fine art and tattooing meet, art as therapy and the benefit of trying new things.

Karyn Gray: An overcooked question, maybe, but what do you consider to be fine art?
Krista Bursey: Fine art should be defined as art that comes from great ideas merged with great talent to tell us something about ourselves and the world we live in. Art that resonates the complexity of our bodies, of humanity, of the universe. Visual equations that express being alive. In my ideal world, Fine art has a balance of concept and execution. Fine art has more of a physiological function than a practical one. 

KG: Do you consider your tattoo art to be a part of your fine art, or is it a separate beast?
KB: In my particular case, tattooing is intrinsically linked to my process of creating and can be defined as a form of fine art. For me, tattooing is the perfect merge of fine art and design. The idea is created into an illustration, sometimes with painting involved. But most importantly, the art of tattooing is etched into the skin as a permanent reminder of something. Like a ring on a tree in a person's timeline.

KG: In your case, what came first - the chicken of fine artistry or the egg of tattoo artistry?  
The chicken comes before the egg for me. I have always been a fine artist–a painter and illustrator. I studied design and worked as a graphic designer/illustrator, and only later discovered tattooing as a way to merge the two mediums. A painter in my heart first, my introduction to design started at Concordia. I always applied my fine art skills to design, and the definitions of the two categories blurred immensely for me. I challenged myself by inking perfect drawings and learning the art of typography and script, which I still love. 

But in the design world, everything is due yesterday and everyone wants it done faster. Needless to say, I longed for something more meaningful. And a good ol’ technical challenge. I met Eric Dufour [a tattoo artist at Art Cyniq in Montreal], and everything changed. I fell in love with his artwork and original style. I think he gave me a chance because I was an outsider to that world, more of an artist than a typical tattooist. Eric knew if the art of tattooing was to change, there had to be new players in the game. 

KG: Was being an artist professionally a conscious decision?
KB: It was always a conscious choice. I just didn't know it would lead to so many mediums. Sometimes I think, what if I stayed on one path and only painted? But I learn about myself when I become vulnerable enough to try something new. It stimulates me to throw myself into new mediums and experiment with different styles. The material, process and style all communicate the concept and certainly refer to the time we live in. I would get way too bored with one approach to art. This is not good from a gallery or marketing stand point, where repetition is the key to recognition in the art and design world. I mean, how do you think logos work? 

KG: Do you have any favorite themes that recur in your fine art? 
KB: One big recurring theme is the relationship between nature and technology. I often use bees and architecture (honeycombs, highway systems, cityscapes) to express that complex technology can be seen as a natural phenomenon and not alien and separate from us. If we study social insects in comparison to how we humans create our technological world, we can draw many parallels and see we are not so different and special. We create what we know; what is on the inside of us is reflected on the outside of us from microcosm to macrocosm.

I like to create mythological characters and symbols to express spiritual undertones of what I am going through. The new fine art show I am working on is a painting show of life-size portraits of myself and others who have influenced me very deeply. It is the most personal body of work I have ever explored, the first portrait being myself portrayed as the Indian mythological character "Durga", a warrior goddess. It conveys the inner and outer strength I created in order to survive the great changes in my life at that time. From photo shoot, to illustration, to a giant painting that I left behind in Morocco, it took me three years to create these concepts, with the final one waiting to be painted, life-size, on canvas. I am simultaneously working on the photo shoots for the next portraits to be completed and shown in 2014.

KG: What do you like people to take away from your work?
KB: Creating artwork is a form of therapy. It has the ability to heal the person creating it and the person engaging with it. Both in fine art and tattooing there is a link of another unforeseen factor: pain. Most fine artists become artists at advanced levels because they have learned that creating is a process that is exercised out of necessity to cope with the hardships of life. Tattooing is also one of the only art forms where you have to suffer physically in order to birth the final image. I hope that anyone who chooses to engage in my work will become a little more enlightened to the experience of being alive. As all artwork can be seen as mirror of the person looking at it, the meaning comes from whatever they choose to see within themselves and the world around them.

Joel Conroy, a fine artist and tattooist out of Ottawa, brings his perspective to the table, and talks art as a vehicle for forming bonds, coping with struggles and showing appreciation for everything you’ve got.

KG: What do you consider to be fine art, and does your tattoo work have a place within the category?
Joel Conroy: My definition of fine art would be any way to turn a thought into an image, whether it be a concept, or an abstract idea of one’s imagination. It’s not something I’ve had much education in, other than from those I surround myself with, so I have a tendency to illustrate whatever persistent idea comes to mind. I try not to let a person’s judgment of an idea sway me from drawing, painting or tattooing something I feel is creative. So, in a way, anyone who does this in any form is, to me, creating fine art. I would consider my tattooing, when allowed some freedom with designs, to be a part of my fine art, yes. They’ve progressed together, one feeding off the other. I’ve learned a lot from painting and tried to apply that to tattooing, and vice versa. At first both were a real struggle and today are still challenging, but as time goes on, the more I do, the more at ease I am with the process. 

KG: What was the progression of things?
JC: The first thing I gravitated toward was fine art. It served me well when I was young. It allowed me to be at ease with my mind during times of isolation, and it also gave me a means for some positive feedback from those around me. I suppose that’s what kept me on this path. When you’re being told that you’re good at something, whether it’s true or not, you feel a jolt to your self-esteem, ego, sense of identity, whatever you want to call it, and continue to pursue making a go at it. Later came tattooing, which seemed like a no-brainer. It was the path of least resistance. It felt natural, and I’ve formed some of the best relationships a person could ask for by doing so. I’ve made a go at life because of tattooing and owe more than I’ll ever have to give back. 


KG: As the cliché goes, the life of an artist isn’t easy. Do you think you need to have a bit of a “no fear” attitude?

JC: As far as being certain about my path in life, I didn’t think there was much value to life if you weren’t enjoying what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis. I still have fears today. I’m still learning to live life on life’s terms and how to align my passion with the responsibilities of being a contributing member of society. I’ve had moments where I’ve given up on life. Knowing that tattooing, art and the bonds I’ve formed in both outweigh the negative thoughts or feelings I may have about life is what keeps me afloat. So it’s not so much a “no fear” attitude as much as it’s an attitude of “f*ck it, there is nothing else that I want to do in life” and so you just find a way to make it work.

KG: On that note, did you make a conscious decision to become a professional artist at some point, or did one thing just lead to another? 
JC: For me, becoming a productive artist that makes a living out of it is a conscious decision and action. Just take a leap of faith and of course try to make good, clear decisions about what you’re putting down, as well as feeling your way through the situation. Luck has a lot to do with it. That and determination. I’ve tried to not let ego get in the way and to learn. I’ve been receptive to the input of those I respect, both in terms of fine art and life management skills. I have to say, I’m pretty lucky.

KG: What themes recur in your fine art - do you have any? 
JC: For sure in paintings, due to the fact that I get to put down whatever my heart so desires. The theme would be a sense of struggle, perhaps with my own sanity. I’m pretty weird, by my own judgment. Perhaps my struggle with addiction and how to appreciate life for the gift that it is. I mean, I’m stable, but I don’t take that for granted. It’s hard for me to feel like these things aren’t being conveyed in my art when they are on my mind so much. It makes me feel like I’m reacting in a positive way when I paint in times of darkness rather than self-medicate. 

KG: Is there anything you hope people take away from your work?
JC: I don’t know how to answer what people might take away from my art. I’m grateful that people even look at it. But if I’m to think on it, maybe it’s that, for a moment, they see things from my perspective, even if that was just my perspective for that moment: an understanding of the impact of my thoughts and feelings. Sometimes I just draw and paint to portray an idea someone has given me that we have collaborated on, in which case I’m just happy that they asked for my input. Really, any positive acknowledgement I might receive or impact I might have on anyone is a huge compliment, so I’ll just leave it there. 


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