Tattoo art now hitting the auction block

Tattoos have been around for thousands of years and have become the new normal, but now they are headed into the world of fine art, fetching high prices at Guernsey's auction house.

Often misunderstood, tattoos have been part of cultural traditions all over the world. Brought stateside by swells of servicemen post-World War II, they came to signify rebellion, a badge of courage and everything in between.

Now tattoos are getting the attention of sophisticated art dealers and auction executives like Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's auction house, CBS News' Michelle Miller reports.

"When I came up, the only people who wore tattoos were people who lived on the other side of the tracks or were in the Navy," Ettinger said. "I really wasn't familiar with the notion of tattoo art on anything other than on the body, but, when I went to view the material for the first time, I saw it, a nice coffee table book featuring the work of one artist."

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Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's auction house, said tattoo art like this one may fetch tens of thousands of dollars.
CBS

That artist was the famous Horiyoshi III. Ettinger then called his office and asked for a copy.

"They said, 'Which one do you want? There are 10 of them.' So it makes it very, very clear that there are enormous followings that these people have," Ettinger said.

Over 1,000 pieces of original tattoo art from some of the world's most prominent tattoo artists are going on the auction block. The eye-catching visuals are painted on canvas, board and paper. The collection belongs to the late fashion designer Peter Mui, who founded the tattoo clothing line Yellowman.

The collection includes works from American traditional artist Bob Roberts, legendary Swiss artist Philip Lou and Horiyoshi III.

"I think this auction is so historic because we've never seen this level of interest by both the art world and the general public," said Anna Felicity Friedman, a tattoo historian and author of "The World Atlas Tattoo."

There are now television shows and conventions dedicated to getting inked. Tattoos have become so popular that according to a 2012 survey 1 in 5 U.S. adults has a tattoo.

"I tattoo everyone from police officers, teachers, doctors. I've even tattooed priests before," said tattoo artist Christian Masot.

He does not just tattoo clients; he also has an art gallery for his work.

"I've had people that are art collectors who were not interested in tattoos and vice versa, and I'm starting to see those two things cross over," Masot said.

Despite the increase in popularity, it's still uncertain who will be bidding in this auction.

"You know, I get asked that a lot, who is going to be the big buyer in this auction or that auction. And the answer is, you never know. It's always a surprise," Ettinger said.

The price of the tattoo art is also surprising. Ettinger said, "There are a number in the tens of thousands, 30, 40, 50,000, we think."

Ettinger said that buyers do not have to be knowledgeable about tattoos. "I'll bet you that 50 percent of the work will get sold to people who don't have tattoos, probably never had interest in it, but see the excitement, the beauty in some of these works," he said.

Asked if this auction marked the start of something big, Ettinger said he did.