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With apologies, Mr. Amano...

Tannin Aquatics

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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.

My peers in the reef keeping world ask this of me a lot, wondering why I "gave up" the splashy and exotic color palette that accompanies reef aquariums for the organic, earth-tone-influenced world of natural freshwater aquascaping, particularly "blackwater" environments.


It's funny, because I didn't "give up" anything. I love both. However, to many of my reef keeping acquaintances that are sort of set in their ways, seeing me evolve a different path is 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 aquascaping.


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 by the "experts."


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 so many aquascapers worldwide seem to be "held hostage" by this mindset that you have to do it like everyone else in order for your work to be taken seriously.

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.

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 its the sort of closed mindset which often accompanies it that sort of concerns me.

I hate stuff that stifles creativity or discourages innovation outside a given set of rules. This is supposed to be fun.

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 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. Shrimp fans are in a really cool place. We're honored to offer something a bit different for you to play with. There is no "right or wrong" in expressing aquatic creativity.

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."

Stay true to yourself.

And stay wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

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Hey Scott, I really liked your op-ed, you've got me thinking about a blackwater tank.  How would you go about "selling" the idea of a blackwater tank to someone who is either unfamiliar with them or just doesn't see them like you do?  I think it'll be interesting to see the direction the hobby takes in the next few years, perhaps towards blackwater tanks which I would like to see more of.  Thanks for your thoughts!

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3 hours ago, BadAlgae said:

Hey Scott, I really liked your op-ed, you've got me thinking about a blackwater tank.  How would you go about "selling" the idea of a blackwater tank to someone who is either unfamiliar with them or just doesn't see them like you do?  I think it'll be interesting to see the direction the hobby takes in the next few years, perhaps towards blackwater tanks which I would like to see more of.  Thanks for your thoughts!

Thanks for the kind words!

I think the blackwater tank concept is really "sellable" when one takes into account the uniqueness of the biotope from both an aesthetic and functional perspective. Blackwater environments (and by extension, aquariums), embrace the natural processes that take place in streams and other bodies of water, and create a diverse, biologically "active" microcosm. The toughest part is that a lot of people may find the aesthetic to be a bit different than what they've come to expect an aquarium to look like (crystal clear bright water, no decomposing matter on the bottom, and little in the way of algal films or other biofilms on the hardscape.). It IS very different, and gives the uninitiated the feeling that it's a "dirty" environment, which, in reality, it isn't. The water is not brown from built-up organics- rather, from the tannins released as the botanicals break down naturally. Blackwater tanks, like any system, can be extremely stable, healthy systems if managed correctly.

I think when we look at the practical aspects of such systems ( better coloration in fishes from such environments, as well as more "natural", calm behaviors, and even spawning activities), the benefits become more obvious. And to be quite honest, there is a very special "vibe" that these types of aquarium seems to put out; one which touches many aquarists. Can't quite put a finger on it, but to see and hear many experienced hobbyists being deeply "moved" by such a system is pretty cool. The feedback we received from our first video was overwhelming, somewhat unexpected, and quite amazing!

And of course, there has been somewhat limited experimentation in the arena, save a few bold specialty hobbyists and breeders, so it is nice to see more people being open-minded and wanting to take a crack at building and maintaining such a tank. A lot to still be learned and shared about the planning, construction, and long-term management of blackwater display aquariums, so it's a "ground floor" opportunity for everyone to get involved and contribute to the body of knowledge available- for everyone's benefit!







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