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Immortalizing Tattoos Through Photography

Brain Cummings' printed his photos on leather to mimic the application of ink to human skin.
Willis Ryder Arnold/St. Louis Public Radio

A St. Louis based photographer is making an international name for himself in tattoo photography. 

Forty-two year old Brian Cummings never expected his project documenting tattoos to be featured in Taiwanese magazines or provoke photography students to call him once a month. 

“I’m honored and do the interview and then go ‘How did you find me?’ And they’re like, ‘I looked up tattoo photography.’ And I’m like, ‘alright, I’ve cornered the market,’” said Cummings chuckling.

Cummings began documenting tattoos when an assistant asked him to take a portrait of her ink. He drew inspiration from a trip to a Chicago Museum and the lighting used in classic baroque portraiture that he saw there. The photographer said presenting tattoos in a fine art context changes people’s perceptions.

“When they see it that way, they’re like, ‘Oh, I do like that,’” he said. “My mother likes these, she’s the first one to like these things on Facebook.”

The images feature regular inked people lit to mimic baroque and classical portraiture. The photographs were printed on leather to mimic the application of ink to human skin, and are hung directly via grommets on the wall or affixed to sturdy boards. Cummings’ current show at Mad Art Gallery in Soulard exhibits work documenting local studio Tower Classic Tattooing. Owner Sean Baltzell said he was happy the show features his clients as much or more than the tattoo.

Cummings' images wait to be mounted at Mad Art Gallery.
Willis Ryder Arnold/St. Louis Public Radio

“There’s so much focus on just the tattoo, whether it’s Instagram or social media,” said Baltzell, “the motive was to show a little more personality of the collector.”

He said there’s never been a show like this in St. Louis before. For Baltzell, the project immortalizes his shop’s work, which lasts only as long as his clients’ lives.

“These photos that Brian’s created will outlive, potentially, the person who’s collected the tattoo, and there’s something special that happens there,” said Baltzell.

Mad Art will display Cummings’ work documenting Tower Classic Tattoo’s ink throughout January.

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