Connecting and Engaging Kids Through an Unlikely Platform

Joseph Swanson, a local artist, tattooer, and educator, is doing something a little bit different. Joseph has been an art advocate for years and he’s recently created a new way to engage kids through art. Art Right Now, his business, teaches art integration for corporations, does local art training at the Lodi Arts Community Center, and has now created a special curriculum for kids. This curriculum offers experiential tattoo culture-based workshops, lectures, professional development sessions, and curriculum. 

That’s right. Joseph is using tattoo culture as a platform to engage kids and not only teach them about art but the social and emotional connections associated with tattoo culture. He’s not encouraging kids to get tattoos. He’s taking this unique topic of tattoos, something that really gets our attention, and using it to teach important things about the arts and human connection. There’s a lot of emotions around tattoos and kids feel that. Joseph is taking that energy and that art to build relationships and help kids understand one another and understand the culture. In a day and age when society is so concerned about losing connection due to the rise of social media, what a unique platform Joseph is presenting to help get kids engaged and connected!

About a year ago, Joseph had an epiphany. “I wanted to get more into journaling for wellness reasons” he explained. “But writing wasn’t really working for me. I’m a very visual person. So then I thought about sketching but that was too broad.” Joseph created a type of journaling using just lines, shapes and colors and saw an immediate benefit. It quickly became clear to him that this would be beneficial for more people than just him, so he started to put a workshop together. Then it hit him: “I thought, ‘You know what, this would be really good for kids.’ For me, it started from a place of wellness. Something that’s intentional for an improved state of being and self-reflection. I thought it was simple enough for kids to get it.”

He reached out to a principal friend who loved the idea of engaging kids through this different platform. His principal friend encouraged him to take this idea and incorporate tattooing. “He offered to let me speak about not just that idea, but he encouraged me to bring in my history of a tattooer. What he’s seeing in the California education system a desire for platforms to be used that are engaging for the kids to learn from. These kinds of alternative platforms that can be used.” 

“I think there’s a couple of reasons why tattooing is so engaging,” shared Joe. “One, it’s being remarked on. In our culture and everywhere, from news to social media platforms to our homes and businesses. People are talking about tattoos. I also think tattooing speaks a lot to the social and emotional skills that can be learned. It’s very diverse. It touches a lot of people. It speaks to a lot of different aesthetics of art. It’s also very cultural. It dives into a lot of those things. It also is part of the visual vocabulary of what we are seeing today. It’s on social media, it’s in our homes. People are seeing tattoos more and more. For me, those are the reasons why it’s remarkable. It has a lot of wonderful access points artistically, socially, and emotionally to teach on. I’ve been developing a curriculum and developing keynotes speaking about this. Why educators can engage it, not just tattooing as a remarkable culture to teach, but other cultures that can have these really engaging and interesting access points for kids.”

It’s true. I don’t think about this that much when I see a tattoo but there is so much history. We talked about tattoos significance in Polynesian culture which was touched on in Disney’s Moana. You can think back to the significance of tattooing in America with the old sailor tattoos or tattoos during the 60s. Tattoos have that emotional pull also because of their permanence. It had never occurred to me to use tattoos as a platform to talk with kids about emotional and social issues.

“The remarkable history of tattooing speaks to the social and emotional skills that kids need to build and we all need to build as humans. And it’s engaging. The art of it is so beautiful. It’s incredible how much it touches. I think it’s really been cool to talk to educators and find out what their opinion has been on how it will be received. The conference that I spoke at was continuing education. There are about a thousand of these schools in California. It’s alternative public schools in California. A large percentage of that is continuation school which typically gives credit to kids who need alternative options they can do to earn those credits back so they can graduate or get put back into another system that will get them to graduation.”

“I don't know anybody else using tattooing as a platform,” he continued. “I know there’s a teacher down in LA who is using graffiti and murals. It’s being done in these neighborhoods. They talk about the letterforms, they talk about art and why it’s impactful. It’s used to spark social commentary. A lot of these different things that I think educators want to hear about.”

Joe has developed a program about the remarkable history of tattooing. He’s also offering his journaling workshop ”Lines, Shapes, and Color” that got him started on this journey. He even has a podcast, called “Art Right Now with Joseph Swanson” where he dives even more in-depth about the interesting world of tattooing. I didn’t touch on it here but Joe has an eclectic background. Besides being a lifelong artist and tattooer, he also has a business degree, has been in education, and was a police officer for close to eight years. All of these experiences give him a really unique perspective in how he approaches issues. You can also follow him on Instagram @enjoyartrightnow. 

I’ll end this article with the call to action Joseph puts on each one of his podcasts. “Create. I encourage people to create and enjoy their right now. That’s something I’ve said at the end of my podcast for a lot of years, enjoy your right now. Even if it feels disfavorable, understand that there is a purpose and a reason you’re going through it. It’s going to inform a different part of your life. Life’s about balance. Look for those things and try to create.”