DENVER | Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art enjoyed a welcome disruption last week, when the buzz of a tattoo needle and rap music echoed into the lobby of the otherwise quiet and refined space.

The culprit? Amanda Wachob, an iconoclastic tattoo artist shaking up not only the MCA, but also the fine art world with the delicate, colorful and abstract tattoo forms she splays across the bodies of her human subjects.

The New York-based artist tattooed 11 subjects as part of her exhibit, “Tattoo This,” featured this winter at the MCA.

Amanda Wachob likes to practice making tattoos on lemons, because tattooing the rind is comparable to tattooing human skin.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

It’s the first major tattoo exhibit at an international contemporary art museum, according to the MCA, featuring photos of her work and canvas paintings with bold tattoo inks.

Wachob’s presence at the MCA represents the acceptance of tattooing as a high-brow visual art medium akin to painting and a sea change for the contemporary art world.

Wachob set up shop last Thursday for the final session of her week-long residence offering eleven public — and highly coveted — tattoos.

Gawk at Wachob’s work, and you’ll understand why the MCA approached her for a feature. She creates faux brush strokes from the tiny needle lacerations that could pass for abstract watercolors in themselves — if they weren’t flowing across the arms and torsos of her human subjects.

Wachob even mimics serendipitous mistakes common to canvas paintings. Paint splotches and drips spring deliberately from her precise tattoo designs, which are stenciled onto subjects beforehand.

Some of her work could pass for a Jackson Pollock design and skillfully mimics Hans Hofmann, a mid-century master painter dubbed the father of abstract expressionism — and Wachob’s major inspiration as an artist.

Denver is already a tattoo-friendly town, but her work is a world apart from the usual tattoo designs in that they resemble nothing in particular. On the street, someone walking with a coveted Wachob design could look like they just left an art studio and forgot to wash off rogue brush strokes and acrylic paint drips.

Of course, there’s risk involved in applying expressionism to permanent tattoos. Spilling a bucket of paint onto a splatter-art canvas may mean scrapping the piece altogether – at worse – but a mistake on a tattoo design is forever.

But Wachob’s subjects offer their bodies as canvasses in droves.

The high demand followed her to the MCA. The slots sold out in six minutes, she said, and all but a handful of the lucky winners flew to Denver from out-of-state. 

Wachob spoke to The Sentinel while she prepared for her final live tattoo session there, adorned in a magenta dress and glittery, silver boots. It’s not a look most people would expect from a tattoo artist.

Wachob’s artistic journey wasn’t so glamorous.  She said she paid her dues as a tattoo apprentice in New York, her native state. She scrubbed toilets, swept the floors and drew tattoo stencils while painting and shooting photos on the side.

Amanda Wachob tattoos a client Feb. 25 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. Michael Lang is from Boston and waited five years to get a tattoo from Wachob.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

But as a budding tattoo artist, Wachob said she looked to fine artists for inspiration. First and foremost were surrealistic paintings and the work of Hofmann, the mid-century artist known for his explosions of color and spontaneous forms.

Like many artists, Wachob was drawn to the freedom of creating art for emotional satisfaction and catharsis. She’d already built a foundation in painting and photography, but said she didn’t even know many people who had tattoos when she began. 

“I just sort of looked at it as another art form — a new medium to learn — and just went into it completely unbiased,” she said.

“A whole new world totally opened up,” she added.

Michael Lang, from Boston, sat in Wachob’s tattoo chair to receive the last tattoo of her MCA residency — but his first. He’d waited five years for one of Wachob’s tattoos and had since refused to work with any other artist, he said.

Wachob said she’s thankful for determined admirers like Lang, but she still feels caught between the tattoo world and the art world, and she admits she’s better recognized in the latter.

With Wachob featured this season at the MCA, however, it’s undeniable that tattooing is now being recognized as a medium of serious, and satisfying, artistic expression.

The permanence of tattoos, however, leave some unresolved questions about their merit as fine art.

It will likely be up to future generations to see how Wachob’s pieces age on ever-changing human skin; unlike canvasses, it’s up to the human owners to care for her work – and even then, the pieces can only last a lifetime.