This is a review of the first two episodes of Needles & Pins: UK and Las Vegas.
Future episodes (yet to be aired when this post was written) will explore: Los Angeles, South Korea, New Zealand and Japan.
VICELAND’s Needles & Pins exposes tattoos in an honest light, revealing their timeless status as an opportunity to express individuality.
Grace Neutral’s new tattoo documentary begins at home, as episode 1 launches straight into exploring the body modification industry here in the UK. From a young model experimenting with self-expression, to a renowned tattooist who has been exposed to the art-form for decades, the show looks at this country’s attitude towards tattooing on a wide spectrum.
For tattooer Duncan X, getting tattooed is an opportunity to rebel. As the industry becomes more mainstream, the tattooed subjects onscreen explore – how do we “cross the line” with our physical appearance in the 21st century? Are tattoos still an original form of self-expression?
As Grace talks to body modification artists and customers, we’re reminded of the extent to which our bodies are “playgrounds”. Even the tiniest tattoo can bring confidence to its wearer and allow them to create their own versions of self.
We spend time with a ‘Suicide Girl’ model and Grace opens our eyes to how tattoos can cure body confidence issues. We also meet a group of skinheads who are re-claiming the sub-culture as something positive. Their tattoos give them a connection to their belief system that, in turn, gives them a sense of purpose.
Previous representations of scarification and tattooing on UK television programmes have relied on shocking the viewer. Here, however, we are witnesses to body modification as an extremely sacred, meaningful, and often healing, ritual. An artist already deeply engaged in, and passionate about, these subjects, the show couldn’t have found a more perfect front-woman than Grace.
From the gritty streets of East London, episode 2 transports us to shiny Las Vegas, where tattooing stands for something quite different. Here, the industry is booming like never before and 24-hour tattoo shops, mostly located in casinos, are busier than ever.
Grace meets the (sometimes multi-millionaire) owners running these thriving businesses – shops that are very much kept alive by the tourism industry. In this city of indulgence, tattooing is far removed from a world of sacred ritual and deep self-expression, as drunken newlyweds browse stock designs on a digital screen in reception. Vegas’s “service providers” (the official term for a tattoo artist in one brand of studio) are working hard through the night to provide the visitors of Sin City with memorable tattoo art that has to profit the tattooer, shop owner and casino simultaneously.
The other hot topic in this episode is the introduction of the emergence of “tattoo schools”. Rather than follow a more traditional apprenticeship route, the young Miami Ink fans (the student’s words, not mine) of today can pay $35,000 for a year-long course on how to tattoo. Originally considered a rite of passage, a sacred passing-down of information from master to learner… will the tattoo apprenticeship soon be a thing of the past? Are these business owners taking advantage of a growing generation of artistically un-skilled ink-lovers who fantasise about life as a tattooer?
Before we’re able to feel too comfortable in this more clinical, and perhaps even soul-less, depiction of the modern tattoo world, Grace whisks us away from central Las Vegas to meet young artistic communities and ‘outsider’ tattoo shops challenging the commercialisation of art.
Seeing the passion and enthusiasm thriving in these alternative scenes reminds us of where tattooing came from. These individuals don’t talk about it in terms of hits on social media but are aware of tattooing’s journey into the present day.
More importantly though, these passionate artists dedicated to their traditional roots, these sweaty punk rockers wrestling each other in the Nevada desert, are engaged with art as a form of self-expression. We also meet a female tattooist who has struggled to find her place in a male dominated industry. These artistic explorations don’t always come easy, but that doesn’t mean we’re going down without a fight.
In a town fuelled by commercialism, underground art flourishes. We’re reminded of the truth of what tattoos have always stood for – a chance to rebel against the norm and exhibit some form of self in a world that isn’t, and has never been, perfect. The industry may be changing in a seemingly negative way, but there are too many young (and old) passionate individuals who will never want to be part of the system. Skinhead, punk, model, whatever – for a huge percentage of us, our tattoos are intended to challenge the structures around us and no level of monetisation can change how we feel.
As this series began, viewers were posed with the question of whether tattoos can still be an original form of self-expression. With four more episodes yet to hit our screens, (spoiler alert) I think I know, and love, the answer.
The first two episodes of this series examine tattooing in completely contrasting cities that sit 5,000 miles apart. Whilst their tattoo ‘scenes’ may differ, we’re ultimately left with an idea of how tattoos can connect us across the globe. Needles & Pins reminds us of what tattooed people really are – an embodiment of our ability to rebel.
Words: Beccy Rimmer / Inkluded
Photos and Videos: VICE / Needles & Pins