The term "modern primitive" seems awfully passe now, especially in New York, where bankers and stock brokers and lawyers and housewives are getting tat-toos and piercings. There was a time, remember - and a time not that long ago - when none of us had ever heard the term before, and tattoos were the territory of merchant seamen and junk-addled rock stars, not the giggling, 20-year-old cutesy-pie who just took your order.
Back in 1995, much of Western Europe was in the same position culturally that the States were, say, 10 years earlier, right before the whole "modern primitive" thing broke here. Instead of a RE/Search book to kick things off, however, the Europeans got something a bit more lively, "Wildstyle" was the name given to a trans-European rock 'n' roll-style tour featuring tattooists, body piercers, musicians, artists, custom trucks and motorcycles, hairstylists, head shops, contortionists, fire eaters, exotic dancers, human pincushions, sword swallowers and body painters from around the world. It was like a state fair aimed at disaffected teenagers. But it was also designed in such a way that it would attract not only freaks and hipsters, but a wider cross-section of people. At heart, it was just good clean fun. With exotic dancers and piercings.
Those heady days are now frozen in a new coffee-table book put together by Clayton Patterson and Jochen Auer. Featuring hundreds of photographs taken by Patterson and a handful of essays (in both English and German) written by tour participants, Wildstyle illustrates exactly how, given the focus and enough manpower, a ready-made subculture can be inflicted upon an unsuspecting continent. In a way, the tour accomplished the same thing the Pistols' Anarchy tour had two decades earlier. Wildstyle had that same sense of revolutionary adventure.
The photographs are the centerpiece of the book, and they capture the good-spirited mayhem that comes when you mix bikers, contortionists, tattoo artists and fire-breathers in one room. If sometimes they look like simple snapshots from a (very strange) family reunion, well, in a way that's what they were. And if some of them lack the slickness of things you've seen in other tattoo books, keep in mind that things were moving and changing very quickly and the photos were essentially taken on the run.
If, nowadays, we snort derisively at some kid with a mohawk and a leather jacket, or someone whose arms are covered with one of those "tribal" or "Celtic" tattoos, remember - there were when these things were shocking, and a time when they meant something. Even if it only lasted for a moment, those are rare. Wildstyle captures one of them - and that's rare.