Film Muser Rating : 3.5 / 5
Release Date : July 27, 2007
Running Time : 26 minutes
Sleeve is an ultra-low budget independent short documentary that follows the progression of a young man, Ryan Johnson, as he gets both of his arms covered in tattoos. Set entirely in the Guru Tattoo shop in San Diego, the film starts with Ryan and the artist Aaron Della Vedova watching video footage that was shot during the sessions, both commenting on the experience. This is the premise for the film, with the audience getting a detailed look at this long and committed tattoo process, while also getting a chance to see the two people involved react to the events after the fact.
What I really enjoyed about Sleeve was the two perspectives that the film documented. Obviously it was interesting to see what Johnson was feeling as he took the huge plunge of covering both of his arms with permanent ink. But something I found to be just as compelling was to hear from Della Vedova. Getting insight from the artist as to what he is feeling during the sessions was a nice touch, letting the audience see a side that may be overlooked at times. As nervous as the client is, we get to see that the artist may be just as nervous, especially on these larger jobs. I mean, he is responsible for what is going to be on his clients’ bodies for the rest of their lives.
The film often switches to a comic book style framed view with one frame showing a particular step of the tattooing, and the other showing Johnson and Della Vedova watching and commenting on that same footage. This is a clever technique by the director to give the audience a sense that they are watching the film with the two of them. I was disappointed that the director chose to release Sleeve in the 4:3 aspect ratio as opposed to the more cinematic 16:9. I would liked to have also seen the film dive a little bit deeper into Johnson’s motivation for the sleeves. We do get some history as to why, but I got the sense that there may have been more.
Sleeve may be enjoyed more by the tattoo community for obvious reasons, but it is also an insightful look into a once taboo practice revealing a personal bond between artist and client that all can enjoy. It is a film that looks at an industry that recently has entered the mainstream without going down a trendy, or pretentious path that it is so easily could have. Sleeve is an honest portrayal of the tattoo process that can help those outside of this community understand what drives so many to get “inked”.
Near the end of the film when the tattoo is complete, Johnson and Della Vedova discuss the reactions people have when seeing such extreme pieces. They talk about people always asking, “what does it mean”. Not being a “tattoo guy”, this once seemed like a legitimate question, but they bring up the point that tattoos are in fact art. And just like any piece of art, it can have a different meaning for everyone.