Mr. Pale Fish

Mr. Pale Fish

My name is Thomas (named Mr.Pale Fish by Caesar) and I live in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Here my story comes : About a year ago, I started my tattoo journey with a right arm sleeve sporting a nautical theme. That experience provided a few good lessons (there’s nothing like hindsight, right?). This time, as I set out to balance my ink with a left sleeve, I decided upon a few principles to guide the process of finding art and artist:

• make a plan for the entire tattoo before getting started, ensuring it will work from top to bottom
• select an artist with a demonstrated “sweet spot” for the kind of art I’m after
• be sure the artist has a technical ability greater than the design requires; get a result that’s even better than the basic artwork

Generally, I was after an abstract shape. The right arm has very well-defined lines and colors, and is comprised of a number of identifiable characters (mermaid, nautical star, whale, sea dragon, etc.). To provide some balance, I waned the left arm to take on an amorphous shape, entirely in black and gray. Unlike the other arm, this one should have depth, shadows, a realistic light source, and complexity in its layers.

Thomas Tattoo arms

Heading into the process, I had in mind a few images that I preferred, like the art of Campbell Laird. Digging around online, I surfed through a long procession of portfolios from artists throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York… and even a few overseas. The rough cut was finding someone who specialized in amorphous shapes, blacks/grays, depth, shadows… all the key characteristics I want this piece to demonstrate.

Thomas tattoo arm 2

It was a bit of a counter intuitive process. My friends, offering no shortage of advice, suggested finding an artist whose subject expertise mirrored my choice in art. If I’m looking for a duck, they reasoned, find someone who draws ducks. To my mind, it was more important to find the style first, and the subject second. That is, if I wanted a duck drawn in an Impressionist style, I’d hire an Impressionist artist and trust he could represent a duck. Contrast this with the more typical approach favored by my friends: they’d find a duck master and hope he could figure out Impressionism.

My searching led me to Caesar’s website. It was a “eureka” moment – clearly, his skills fit the bill (duck pun notwithstanding). Here is a guy who can nail the amorphous-black-gray-depth-shadow story. His pieces show high contrast, strong use of negative space – all the keys I’m looking for… except for one: to be sure, there wasn’t a single piece of Campbell Laird-like art in his portfolio, and his neo-surrealist bend would likely laugh at my chosen subject.

It was worth a try, I reasoned. The worst that could happen is that he would turn down the idea and I’d just move on. I was scheduled to be at the Philly tattoo arts convention, and Caesar was listed as an attendee. I brought along some samples of the abstract art I had my eye on. Fortunately, the introduction was easy. I was under the needle of another artist, having some work done on my back. It turned out this gentleman and Caesar know one another, and Caesar stopped by to say hello.

This was my chance to seal the deal. I introduced myself, mentioning that I had been impressed with his portfolio and was hoping he would take on my sleeve project. Caesar is a friendly guy (though he’ll deny this), and he patiently looked through the sheaf of paper I brought along. I can’t say I made a convert. To be sure, he offered to talk further about what I wanted… and I proffered all the usual disclaimers about wanting his input. I trusted a capable artist would know better than I what reads well, what fits the body right, and how best to construct the sleeve as an integrated piece of art.

This, more than anything, turned out to be the true litmus test. Certainly you can simply find someone whose willing to do exactly the tattoo you want. But, it’s just as the old adage foretells: you get what you pay for. The best wisdom I’ve gleaned along this artistic journey is to find a true artist. This is someone who not only knows about getting ink under your skin, but blends their technical know-how with an appreciation for anatomy, who can adds an understanding of composition, and who can account for the totality of a design.

Ideally, the artist should be making recommendations that will improve upon your ideas. In my case, I was fortunate to have come upon Caesar. His ideas not only advanced mine, but in some cases supplanted mine altogether. Ultimately, Caesar recommended certain styles of art, and the design is far better than what I had initially envisioned.

This is not to say I fell victim to a bait-and-switch. Rather, I had a range of ideas about how the piece could look. Some were strong requirements; others were vague feelings. Caesar distilled the ideas into some basic guidelines that would lead to a successful tattoo: concepts like “tension” in the coloration (large areas of dark contrasting with large areas of light), use of the radius of the arm as a continuous panoramic canvas, and transitions that draw the eye to the critical elements.

In the end, Caesar’s skill even influenced the choice of art. Taken together, his portfolio and his consultative expertise make a compelling case for certain artistic styles. Think back to the Impressionist duck analogy; if you met this great Impressionist, and he told you all the technical and artistic reasons that flowers make for the best subject in an Impressionist piece, wouldn’t you consider flowers over a duck? While I’m sure there’s a duck hanging in some Impressionist museum somewhere, there’s likely good reason that we’re not awash in Anatidae.

Pale Fish Shoulder Tattoo 1

So, after an exchange of emails, I set out to find a subject that would better serve as the basis for a sleeve. I tore through Google images, emailed friends, rifled through pictures saved through the years, considered the art in my house, listed themes that held meaning for me, and reviewed photos from trips overseas. I came to recall a trip to Paris years ago that included a stop at Musée d’Orsay. For the most part the art… well, let’s just say it didn’t suit my taste. But one Swiss symbolist painter left a mark, and, thinking of how taken I was with his work, it now seemed the perfect candidate for a tattoo.

In the late 1800’s, an artist named Arnold Böcklin crafted five versions of his iconic Isle of the Dead painting. It’s fundamentally a desolate and rocky islet seen across an expanse of dark water. A small rowboat is arriving at a water gate and seawall on shore. In the bow, facing the gate, a figure stands entirely clad in white. Just behind the figure is an object, also draped in white, commonly interpreted as a coffin. The tiny islet is dominated by a dense grove of tall, dark cypress trees — long associated with cemeteries and mourning — which is closely hemmed in by precipitous cliffs. Furthering the funerary theme are what appear to be sepulchral portals and windows penetrating the rock faces.

Pale Fish Original Bocklin Reference

Most observers have interpreted the oarsman as the boatman Charon, who conducted souls to the underworld in Greek mythology. The water, then, would either be the River Styx or the River Acheron, making Charon’s white-clad passenger a recently deceased soul transiting to the afterlife.

One of these paintings was on loan to Musée d’Orsay, alongside a few other Böcklin pieces that are part of their standing exhibit. Now, I’m not much of a patron of the arts, so it was clearly a victory for the long-deceased Böcklin that I bought a book of his work as I wandered out of Musée d’Orsay. That book stayed in my inventory for more than a decade, occasionally serving as a prop when I want to look at least minimally competent in a discussion of the arts.

To prepare for a consultation with Caesar, I went online and printed several Böcklin pieces, anticipating that we could put together some sort of collage that would flow from wrist to shoulder. I solicited votes from my girlfriend and from friends. For each painting, I indicated what intrigued me about the pieces, whether it was the topic, the brushwork, the colors, the meaning, or something else.

When we finally met, Caesar sat patiently through my Tour de Böcklin and the subsequent Compendium of Abstract Transitions. Right away, I could see how he applies his experience; select pieces were pulled aside, each with an explanation about why he liked them as candidates for the tattoo.

In the end, we both could see that the Isle of the Dead piece was to be the centerpiece of the design. This was my supposition going into the consultation, but, as expected, we emerged with an improved idea. Rather than try to take one long vertical sliver from the painting to affix to a facet of my arm, Caesar recommended we use the entire painting as if it were wrapped around the arm. Like a continuous, never ending panoramic image. Brilliant!

While we didn’t quite resolve how to cover the upper arm and shoulder, we at least blocked out the basic idea: Bocklin’s island would be on the forearm, an abstract shape would transition through the elbow, and a dark high-contrast piece would cover the upper arm and shoulder. Caesar suggested we start on the forearm first, given it was to be the centerpiece of the design, and that it would be most apparent in summer weather. I liked the suggestion, if only for the chance to show off the new ink at the earliest possibility.

We parted ways and I headed home for more research into abstract transitions, narrowing the field of candidates down to five or six that looked good. At Caesar’s request, I left him with electronic versions of all the artwork so that he could explore his ideas as well. In a comical attempt at artistry, I mocked up what we discussed in some ill-suited desktop software and sent Caesar a copy. Surely he was not concerned that I would soon take over his business.

In the time between the consultation and the kickoff, we passed a few emails back and forth to narrow the choices. In thinking through all the counsel Caesar provided, two clear requirements emerged for me from amongst all the avenues we explored:

First, I wanted something that is technically very complex. That is, now that I have a sense of how intricate and difficult tattooing can be… and how much skill it takes… I’d prefer to have something on my arm that takes full advantage of the artist’s talents. When people who know tattooing see it, I’d like them to see the artist’s technical ability, not just my taste in art. To me, this piece should be like a fine watch – some people will see it and just think it’s visually appealing. Others, who know about watches, will see it and will be taken by the craftsmanship. That, to my mind, would be a killer tattoo.

Second, I wanted the piece to have conceptual continuity, as if it tells a contiguous story. That is, the Charon brings a soul to the island… it then goes somewhere. If we consider the upper arm to be something of an afterlife… we could find a transition in the middle of the arm that would carry a soul. This feels to me like something a bit ethereal… like a sense of smoke rising.

As we’ve got the Isle nailed in on the forearm. The design process here was phenomenal to witness. Caesar was armed with the electronic versions of Isle of the Dead (Böcklin created five versions, of which four still exist). Each version differs in composition, and there’s some minor variation in content. We sat at Caesar’s computer and brought elements together from a few of the Isle versions. We even brought in a more stylized Charon who appeared in a tribute painting by a later artist.

Taken together, the design works. To someone who knows Böcklin, it will look just like Isle of the Dead, owing entirely to Caesar’s artistic skills. To size the piece properly, he had to pull out some elements (the original would have been proportionally too wide). To get the perspective correct around a curved surface, he had to tilt some elements. To feature the Charon character, he had to move its location within the painting and reverse it’s direction.

All of this wouldn’t be absolutely necessary, of course – I could have had someone simply create an exact stencil of the painting and slap it on. The result would have been adequate, but not impressive. With all the thoughtful editing and tweaking, it now looks like the painting was made for the arm. It took three long sessions to give the forearm the depth, darkness, and detail it deserves, and I couldn’t be more impressed with the result.

Our design work is yet done. The transition and top are still under consideration, though we have a shared sense of what will finally emerge. Through it all, the key has been finding this perfect union between art and artist, and ensuring that the artist is more than a copy-and-past tattoo guy. In my case, the artist has influenced art, and vice-versa. And the design process has been one that’s attentive to my goals, the realities of the human body as canvas, the essence of the subject matter, and the talents of the artist.

The results are borne out by the compliments this piece is fetching, including those from an in-the-shop live video feed to my girl in Ireland.

It’s been interesting to learn that most people won’t normally travel much for their tattoo, and fewer still would transit far to follow their artist. I’ve been driving two to three hours each way, and would gladly get on a plane to continue getting this done right.

Thanks for reading

Mr.Thomas Pale Fish