Faculty Profile: Mark Perrott

May 3, 2010

Mark Perrott, an adjunct faculty member at Filmmakers, has developed several series of photographs, each years in the making. We spoke to him about three of those series: tattoos, roygbiv, and modern ruins.

Perrott was driving home one day when he passed a tattoo parlor called Island Avenue Tattoo in McKees Rocks. This was in 1975, when tattoos were “way outside the mainstream culture, “ when they were for “motorcycle guys, convicts, and fallen women.”

“I was always intrigued, and one day got the courage up to stop the car and go in. In back was Nick Bubash bent over a barber chair. Every wall had artwork, posters, postcards, every kind of cultural debris. I fell in love.” Perrott talked to Nick for all of 15 minutes, and was then invited to come into the parlor anytime to photograph his clients. So Perrott came back that Saturday and set up shop in the back of the parlor. He stayed all day, and anytime a person finished getting tattooed, he made a portrait.

Perrott’s photos were always of the subject. The tattoos were never the central focus, and in many of the photographs the tattoo is not visible in its entirety. With the portrait he captures “the powerful process of transformation, that change from terrified to making a pubic announcement that you’ve completely changed.” He shot all the photographs naturally, never giving the subjects any direction. “I love how they spiritually and emotionally organize themselves. I just shut up and waited and wanted to see what came from that moment. The subjects sat with me for 15 minutes, then they were back in the wind.”


“I love all the people, most of all the ones who come in with a friend.” The friend holds your hand while your getting a tattoo, and becomes an important part of the ritual. “I encouraged my subjects to bring the friend to take the picture. I loved that relationship, how they organized themselves in an affectionate way to make a portrait.”

Perrott went to Nick’s on Saturdays for over a year. Then he asked himself, “where else in the country is this happening?” He went to West Virginia, Ohio, New York and New Jersey. He connected with tattoo artists and went to a variety of shops from 1979 to 1980. Around this time the notion of tattoo and the cultural significance of tattoo were changing. “It was a renaissance of tattoo.” Perrott went to conventions with 30+ tattoo artists. At conventions, “people strut and parade and carry on.” The vulnerability, terror and power were leaving tattoo. He set up a booth at conventions and made hundreds of portraits. This continued for 2 or 3 years. In 1983, he showed some of his prints to Jack Lane, the director of the Museum of Art, and had a show at the museum.

He traveled around the country to Seattle, New York City, LA, San Francisco. A culture of celebrity tattooists was developing, and he set out to meet the artists that were most searched out by clients.

All told he worked on the project for 20 years, and took thousands of portraits, all shot with the same camera and similar lighting strategies. “That first day at Nick’s set the pattern.”

“In 1979 it was a rite of passage.” For a 17 year-old male, it was “a powerful way of joining a tribe. He was now marked, and could never go back to the old tribe. People came to Nick to memorialize an important event. In the same way a photo memorializes a graduation or a wedding, tattoo has the same power.”

But tattooing has changed since 1979. “Tattoo has lost its outsideness completely.” At Nick’s, people were getting their first tattoo. “But once they’ve covered most of their exterior, the next tattoo doesn’t have the same effect. When I first started, who knew about tattoos? They were not cool, not mainstream. Athletes never got tattoos.”

The project changed over the years as he found fewer and fewer first times tattooers. He went to tattoo conventions, and found people “so thoroughly beyond their first tattoo. They would display, parade.” He discovered that he had chronicled the history of the tattoo renaissance.

“At the end of my tattoo adventures, piercing showed up as another layer. By 1990 piercing was at tattoo conventions, as was suddenly brightly colored hair.”

“I went through a time when I decided: everything you never wanted to do, you should try doing.” For Mark Perrott, that meant making color photographs. “Roygbiv was an anomaly. “ He had never made noncommercial color photos before, and hasn’t since. “Color was never part of my interest, it’s too complicated. Nothing about color says ‘use me.’ The only color that intrigued me was the folks outside the Beehive on Carson. In the spring they came out, showed up with that brilliant, outrageous, striking hair.”


“I did 100 or so roygbivs. I went on the road, went to Club Laga in Oakland.” On Saturday nights on the dance floor, there were always willing subjects. With the permission of the owner, he set up shop, took kids one by one and photographed them. These portraits Perrott printed up huge, 6 feet by 6 feet. ‘Those heads have to be big!” He even made the head of Emily 12×12 feet. “Emily had blue hair with magenta streaks. She’s teaching school now. But my wife saw her smoking a cigarette outside an art store, and she told her to come to the studio.“

Perrott has a third set of photographs called Modern Ruins. “Living in Pittsburgh, Modern Ruins started in a little coffee shop. I was reading the paper and saw an article about Jones and Laughlin steel. They were demolishing the steel mill. It seemed important to make a record of it before it was gone.”


“Pittsburgh was steel and steel was Pittsburgh. We were the muscle that made steel, big things for big cities, big buildings, big wars. That’s gone now.” In order to make a record of the mill and its demise, he snuck into the steel mill every Sunday and photographed all day. “There’s something fascinating about seeing a place dissected. Every week something was missing, and a new view materialized. It was intriguing, like dissecting a corpse.”

So Perrott spent a year of Sundays in the old steel mill, and Saturdays at Nick’s. “Tattoo was a Saturday event. People got paid, had time off, went to Nick’s.”

To see samples of these collections, as well as many other works of Mark Perrott, visit his website at http://www.markperrott.com.


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