To the "misfits?" Or simply the innovators?

I had occasion to chat with a few friends lately who are really into the aquascaping world. They are super talented and gifted artists, from whom I learn so much. Sadly, though, they reflected stories of resistance and judgement from when they tried to push the boundaries a bit, and it made me kind of sad.

It made me reflect on my own journey just a bit.

People ask me all the time what influences my taste in aquascaping. They want to know why I'm so fascinated with leaves, wood, seed pods, and stuff. Like, how did this get into my head? And I think it's pretty obvious that I simply love the aesthetic- the diversity, the tones...

My peers in the reef keeping-world ask this of me a lot, wondering why I seem to have "given up" the splashy and exotic color palette that accompanies the reef keeping world for the organic, earth-tone-influenced world of botanical-style, blackwater aquariums.

It's funny, because I didn't "give up" anything. I love both. However, too many of my reef-keeping acquaintances that are sort of set in their ways; perhaps seeing me evolve a different path was disconcerting, frightening, or just plain amusing. And that's okay. I have my own tastes- as everyone should- and they encompass a variety of things. What's sad is the resistance to different ways of thinking.

It's common all over the aquarium world, but really prevalent, IMHO, in the aquascaping world, as I've found out in the first few years of Tannin's existence. For all of the progressive guys trying new ideas and new things, there was a huge pushback from the "establishment", which seemed to me to discourage ideas which didn't' fit the prevailing style.

These poor guys (and girls) really have taken a lot of heat- and I commend them for being strong.

Some of the best aquascaping advice I've ever received was also some of the worst: "Copy an existing work that you like- exactly. Work with it for a long time and gain confidence with it before moving on to a design of your own"


But good. Perhaps, if not taken too far?

I mean, I suppose it's good because we all aspire to create stuff that pleases us. Nothing wrong with that. And of course, for many hobbyists, that might mean recreating an aquascape that we saw online, at the LFS, a fellow hobbyist's tank, or one of those international competitions. Gaining inspiration from the work of others is great...It gives us a "guideline", so to speak, for creating our own version of the word. 

Artists have been doing it for centuries- drawing inspiration from others, then sort of "tweaking" their own versions. Nothing inherently wrong with this. 


When it starts becoming a "paint by numbers" thing, with everyone trying to create an aquascape that meets someone else's rigid "formula" for theme, layout, composition, stocking, etc., it's "unhealthy", in my opinion. Like, this will get me lambasted throughout the competitive aquascaping world, but I, for one, am a bit tired of aquscapes that contain sand waterfalls, floating cities, "beach scenes", "enchanted forests", etc.

I mean, it seems to me that to place highly in one of those contests, an aquarium has to look like something out of "Lord of The Rings" -some weird fantasy with an underwater twist. 'Scapes that employ these things are studied, analyzed- revealed as THE way to 'scape. Anything that seems to deviate from this is just sort of shrugged off as a "nice try" or something equally dismissive. Now, don't get me wrong. The skill required to create these tanks is's not a matter of "talent" iMHO. It's a matter of the talent pushing in a direction that seems so..I dunno...force, maybe?

From the outside- especially to someone like me who comes from the reef aquarium world, which has went through similar "copy this exactly in order to have a successful attractive tank" periods, its all too familiar- and all too frightening. Even kind of funny, too. A sort of "paint by numbers" approach to 'scaping, quantifying, and looking at the aquatic world. Trying to be exactly what we see elsewhere, not what we feel in our hearts. I have no problem with different styles of aquascaping.

I have problems with fear of innovation.

I just wonder why, for so many years, so many aquascapers worldwide seem to have been "held hostage" by this mindset that you have to do it like everyone else in order for your work to be taken seriously. Of course the argument is that this is NOT the case, but as an outsider, it was blatantly-and painfully-obvious to me immediately. I had a hard time understanding why so much talent went to doing derivatives of the same thing.

Why? To be cool? To belong? Because we want so badly to be like the great aquascapers that we'll forcibly subscribe to some rigid style? Would the great Takashi Amano want this? I don't think so. His greatest works were those that embraced the concept of "wabi-sabi", in which nature guided them. There are no floating cities or floating forests and underwater waterfalls in nature. So how did all of this stuff become the accepted norm? Where did the "aquascaping hegemony" decide to take this weird turn?

I have no idea. I merely suggest that we consider the absurdity of this close-minded thinking when choosing to replicate the work of others- no matter where they are from or who they are.

You're better than this.

Don't get me wrong, there is enormous discipline and talent that goes into the creation and maintenance of these fantasy-inspired aquascaping works, and many are achingly beautiful. I wish I had 1/10th the talent of some of these people. The problem, as I see it, is that many of the high-placing and winning aquaecapes in these competitions are crushingly "formulaic"- simply trying to "one up" or play off of the creations of others, and not really forging new paths- and this directly influences the larger aquascaping world. I suppose that's how inspiration and "movements" work, but scarier to me is the sort of closed mindset which often accompanies it.

I hate stuff that stifles creativity or discourages innovation outside a given set of rules. This is supposed to be fun. I hate when my talented friends jn the 'scaping world told me they were being criticized or risked being marginalized by venturing down the blackwater/botanical-style if "rebelling" somehow.

There's nothing "wrong" at all with the brilliant work these people are doing as entered in the big international competitions. If it was viewed in the same fashion that we view concept cars at auto shows- you know, the absurdly futuristically styled ones with glass domes, hologram instrument panels, etc.- stuff that might eventually "trickle down" to production vehicles in terms of style or technology- then I get it. 

But it's not that way. The message that is clearly being sent is that in order to be taken seriously as an aquascape artist, you need to do it THIS way. 

Why do I find this so personally offensive?

It's just that, well- it all starts looking the same after a while, and we continue to force ourselves to view every single one of these derivative works as "aspirational", as if our own stuff is just sort of..there. There are talented aquascapers all over the world who do amazing work, with their own sense of style, without the influence of others- simply based on what pleases them- what's in their heads, or based on what they see in the natural world.

The natural world. Cool.

Since starting Tannin, we've been blessed to have struck a chord with hobbyists who are looking for a slightly different direction. It's fun to see people take the botanicals we offer and run with them, so to speak- creating aquaecapes and aquariums that speak to their own tastes. A new palette of materials for a hungry aquascaping crowd eager to try something a bit different. We're honored to offer something a bit different to play with. There is no "right or wrong" in expressing aquatic creativity.

And the resistance from the "outside world" from this crowd seems to be breaking down. A fresh breeze (having nothing to do with Tannin-just a general attitude change, I think) seems to be taking over. It's as if someone finally said "enough", and fresh ideas are becoming more welcome.

And what of our botanical-style blackwater aquariums?

Sure, an outsider could say that all botanical-style tanks look the same- like a big pile of leaves and stuff...

And that's where they have it wrong. You give your tank a "track to run on", so to speak, with a hardscape concept or whatever...and then nature takes over and fills it in. Evolves it. You're letting Mother Nature do a lot of the work for you, in terms of letting things happen.

Not resisting it. 

That's kind of our way. Accepting the transient ways of nature and the processes involved.

Oh, and let's never get judgmental, close-minded, arrogant. We need to be welcoming, innovative, kind. Embrace many styles and apply our love for this stuff to them. Share with newcomers and old-timers alike. Let's not become overly enamored with ourselves or what we do...lest we end up reflecting the same attitudes that I just expressed such disdain for.


Ok, deep breath.

The big takeaway of this op-ed today? 

Just be yourself. No matter what anyone says. No matter what everyone else thinks is "The way."

I leave you with one of the greatest, most inspiring advertising passages ever written, the famous Apple "Think Different." passage- a narrative which perhaps speaks to this very school of thought:

"Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."

Find your love. Express it. Share it. No matter what anyone says.

Stay true to yourself.

Stay proud. Stay unique. Stay bold. Stay patient. Stay open-minded.

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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