Tattoos mean many different things to many different people, without even mentioning what they mean personally to the people who wear them. They are, above all, symbolic. They can be both personal and political acts of rebellion; tributes to where a person is from, and who’s touched their lives; scars that represent difficult times fought through and defeated; an personally chosen identifying marker and source of power for people who want to state who they are and what that means. More often than not, they look really damn cool. And in all cases, there is a story, however big or small, hidden under the ink.
The new and simply named exhibit Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art. at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Roloff Beny Gallery tells these stories in a vivid, visual, entertaining, and engaging way. Originally curated by art duo Anne & Julien—who were on hand to speak about the importance of the exhibit during the media preview—for the musée du quai Branly in Paris, the ROM’s is curated by Chris Darling (Senior Curator of Entomology) and Kenneth Lister (Assistant Curator of Anthropology).
“As no doubt it has dawned on many of you, tattoos are a bit of a departure for the ROM,” Darling said. “Whenever I mention the exhibit to friends, the first response is usually: ‘at the ROM?!’ The confusion I think comes from two sources. One, what the ROM is, and two, what tattoos are. The ROM is an institution that links the past and the present by exploring relationships between human cultures and their environments. And tattoos are a physical, but transient, manifestation of these relationships, which are at least 5,000 years old.”
Darling’s succinct explanation lays the groundwork for exploring the exhibit. There are few, if any, art forms that connect art, artist, and canvas so intimately. One of the most fascinating and very hard to come by features of the exhibit are silicone body parts—arms, legs, full torsos—that have been tattooed by famous tattoo artists, including Tin-Tin (France), Paul Booth (USA), Horiyoshi III (Japan), and Yann Black (Montreal). It’s difficult to convey the true nature of tattoos because of their nature: as bodies change, so does the art stamped upon them. The still life medium of photography can’t totally accurately act as a representation of a real tattoo. It’s a moving, shifting artwork. These incredible silicone body parts are the closest we can get—save for putting a living human being on exhibit—to showing a three dimensional tattoo and how it interacts with the body it’s a part of.
But even better than their impressive collection of photos, paintings, artifacts, and ghastly fake bodies, is Tattoos commitment to getting to the stories behind the tattoos, the artists, and the cultures the art was born from. They have a rich history to draw from, as tattoos are a part of nearly, if not every, culture all over the world. The exhibit delves into the Maori tattooing traditions of New Zealand, Thai tattooing, or sak yan, “based in traditional animism, Brahmanism, and Buddhism,” European and North American sideshow tattooing, Russian gulag tattoos, the Japanese irezumi tradition, prison tattoos, and many more. On top of explaining the significance historically of each of their pieces, there are stories from working tattooers and famous masters, video documentaries, and first-hand accounts detailing the cultural effect of of tattooing. If you want to know which culture the legendary Sailor Jerry took great lengths to educate himself in, or who his own major influence was, that’s all here, along with some of Jerry’s flash sheets.
“With so many people in Canada, and frankly around the world, who are getting tattooed, and seeing this is an important form of self-expression, it’s really wonderful to be able to make the case that tattoo art is art, and it’s a form of artistic creativity to be considered that way,” ROM CEO Josh Basseches said while taking in the exhibit. “So what we’re trying to do with this exhibition is really re-shape the way people look at tattoos and tattoo art. Also I think it’s something that connects very much with a generation of people who are getting tattoos.”
Indeed, with studies that find around 40% of both Generation Xers and Millennials have at least one tattoo, the exhibit achieves the goal it set itself: to connect the past and the present through this cultural and artistic practice. And they’ll be using the exhibit to connect in many different interactive ways, through a number of upcoming ticketed events. The first is called The Art of Ink on April 5, featuring a conversation about the art of tattooing between musée du quai Branly curators Anne & Julien, legendary tattoo artist Hank “Hanky Panky” Schiffmacher, and moderator Kevin Sweet of Radio Canada. Other events include the ROM’s Season 9 launch of Friday Night Live, a screening of documentary Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos, and a visit from leading anthropologist Lars Krutak where he will talk about the impact of tattoos and other body modification practices in an event named The Cultural Heritage of Indigenous Tattooing: Medicine, Myth, Magic, and Meaning.
Not only does this all connect the past and the present of tattooing, and link stories that may have otherwise been lost with the next generations of people practicing and anxious to learn about the art form, but it also takes the museum—a type of institution often wrongly believed to be more conservative than it actually is—and propels its vision forward with a cultural phenomenon that is quickly growing and will only pick up speed as we look toward the future. After getting to know the intricacies of all these tattooing cultures, Basseches remarked that he didn’t have any tattoos currently, but that he might have to remedy that. And changing minds about what tattooing is and what it represents is one of the exhibits main goals.
“I would hope this exhibit does two things. One is really drive the point home that I was making before, that this is a form of artistic creativity that is at a very high level, for people to think about it from a creative artistic perspective and not just a cultural perspective. The second would be to say our doors are open wide, and if you’re someone who has a tattoo, if you’re someone who’s engaged with current cultural life, [the ROM] is a place that’s relevant to you and has meaning.”
Make sure you head over to the ROM to check it out soon. After all, unlike its subject matter, the exhibit won’t be around forever.
Indie88 is a proud partner of the ROM’s latest exhibit, Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art running now till September 5, 2016.