Artist's Statement: Ruth Marten on hair, tattooing and New York City flea markets

By Ben Miller Published: 02 January 2013

A photo of a collage illustration of various birds around a tree
Brave Birds (2011). Ink, watercolour and collage on vintage print© Isis Gallery, UK

Artist's Statement: Ruth Marten on A Treasure Hunt in a Lazar House at London’s Pure and Applied space...

“I have always loved linear work. I have a fascination with history and cultural attitudes.

“When I began tattooing, in 1973 in New York City, it was illegal and narrowly defined as much by the carny type designs as by the process itself. 

“The challenge, then, was to bring new and more artistic ideas to the craft. Don Ed Hardy, Cliff Raven and many other artists imagined this new approach, and everyone on the planet knows how it worked out.

“Because of the AIDS crisis, by 1980 I had quit tattooing. 

“I was beginning what would become a 17-year fascination with all things Hair: Hair-doos, social attitudes about hair and hair as death defier.

“By the late 1980s, the extraordinary African American Style ‘Sculptures’ were everywhere. I would often imagine such a concoction only to see it walk by me on the sidewalk. 

“Hair threads were easily replicated with a good paint brush, bringing into the mix an echo of Asian calligraphy, which is also a passion of mine.

“It was a meaty subject that, when it quit me, left me high and dry until I wandered up to the print table at the local flea market and bought an old Chippendale print of two chairs, wondering how the paper would respond to ink and brush. 

“That set me off onto my current path. My work now very much allows my love of history and everything I learned from 30 years of book illustration into the conversation.

“Histoire un-Naturelle, the title of my book from 2008, is a comic term from the wonderful animal etchings commissioned by the Duc de Bufon in his multiple volumes of Histoire Naturelle. 

“The wonky and resolute presentation of mammals, birds and botany in a kind of mug shot, profile view speaks volumes about the infancy of illustration of the natural world.

“This cataloguing, picture by picture, was leading society away from the oppressive ignorance of religion. I'm all for that. 

“Humour is inevitable, given the passage of time and the use of photography during the past 181 years, but I champion these marooned little soldiers of early knowledge.

“I am being more controlling for this show, in that I am trying to free myself from the restraints of small pictures and innovate the scene with the addition of printed elements.

“Forgive the mystery, but if it is revealed too clearly we will all have to see clumsier versions in short order. 

“I will say, though, that I mostly start without a plan and am responding to a print I'll notice.

“I think it is quite obvious what I'm doing with the picture but, if I'm really being successful, both the viewer and I will have a hard time working it out.”

  • Visit for more. A Treasure Hunt in a Lazar House runs until January 19 2012.