Tattoo Exhibits Worth Seeing…
If you love tattoos, you will love these two major exhibits currently on display at two major museums. Tattoo exhibits are not new, but what is unique about these current shows is the depth and width of their presentations, and the rich cultural history of tattooing that is on display. Carefully researched and curated, both shows provide the viewer with an excellent look at the cultural significance of tattooing and the many ways it has evolved alongside many cultures.
Westerners tend to view the history of tattoos and tattooing through our own perspective, with our Sailor Jerry’s and circus performers laying the groundwork for the juggernaut that is the tattoo industry today. But elsewhere in the world, tattooing was a part of the culture and carried its own weight and meaning loooong before Ink Master was conceived. So if you are fortunate enough to live near these prestigious museums, get your smarty-pants on and check these tattoo exhibits out!
Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, CA
Tatau: Marks of Polynesia explores the beauty of Samoan tattoos as well as the key role they play in the preservation and propagation of Samoan culture. Through photographs taken in the studio and on location in Samoa and elsewhere, Tatau showcases the work of traditional Samoan tattoo masters alongside that of younger practitioners working within and influenced by the tradition today. Through exhibitions like Tatau, JANM continues its work of promoting understanding of diverse cultures.
Samoa’s tatau, along with Japan’s irezumi, is one of the world’s most distinctive living tattoo traditions. An indigenous art form with a continuous history that dates back 2,000 years, tatau has played a pivotal role in the preservation and propagation of Samoan culture, surviving many attempts at eradication. In Samoa, tufuga tā tatau (master tattoo artists) are accorded high status in society, and acquiring tatau is considered a powerful affirmation of national identity, particularly for young men, for whom it is an important rite of passage. Tatau motifs and symbols are also being adapted by younger artists for new media and art forms. Both the traditional tattoo and its more contemporary manifestations have helped to create and affirm identity for new generations of Polynesians and others living outside of Samoa.
Among the artists featured in Tatau are Su‘a Sulu‘ape Alaiva‘a Petelo, Su‘a Sulu‘ape Peter, Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paul Jr., Su‘a Sulu‘ape Aisea Toetu‘u, Sulu‘ape Steve Looney, Tuigamala Andy Tauafiafi, Mike Fatutoa, and Sulu‘ape Si‘i Liufau. An important focus of the exhibition is the influential Sulu‘ape family and their disciples; the legendary Petelo Sulu‘ape and his deceased brother Paulo are credited with spurring the resurgence of Samoan tattoos worldwide. Additional photographs taken in New Zealand, Hawai‘i, California, and Nevada demonstrate the spread of the art form outside of Samoa and some of its newer interpretations. (text by JANM)
Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, IL
On October 21, 2016, the Field Museum will unveil its newest special exhibition, Tattoo. The exhibition explores the global phenomenon of tattooing around the world over time, shedding light on this often-misunderstood art form.
This will be the first time that the exhibition, which was initially developed by Paris’s musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, will be on display in the United States. The exhibition, which will run until April 30, 2017, features 170 objects telling the story of tattooing, including historical artifacts and intricate contemporary designs tattooed onto silicone models of the human body.
The Field will be supplementing the exhibition with objects from its own collections. “We have some incredible artifacts related to tattooing in different cultures, and we’ll be including some in the exhibition,” explained exhibition project manager Janet Hong. “We’re also working on some elements of the exhibition that will be specific to tattooing in Chicago.”
Visitors to the exhibition will learn that people have been marking their skin as a means of expression for more than five thousand years—there’s evidence that the ancient Egyptians practiced tattooing, and the body of a naturally mummified man found in the Italian Alps (“Ötzi”) from 3330 BC is covered in 61 tattoos. The methods of tattooing vary widely across time and place—for instance, Thomas Edison held the first patent on a nineteenth-century “puncturing pen” that was used as the first electric tattooing machine—and the stories behind the tattoos vary even more. The exhibition features a seventeenth-century tattoo stamp for Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem to commemorate their journey; meanwhile, it tells the stories of contemporary tattooists like Whang-od Oggay, a 98-year-old Fillipina artist who carries on traditional methods that are thousands of years old.
But while there are many narrative threads within the exhibition, Alaka Wali, Curator of North American Anthropology, explains, “The central message of the exhibition is about human creativity. It’s important to understand creativity’s different manifestations and not dismiss cultural practices and art forms because they were somehow stigmatized. The exhibition is going beyond the stereotype of tattoos to explore their aesthetics and artistry across cultures.”
“Whether you’re someone with tattoos yourself or someone who’s interested in contemporary art practices and cultures around the world, this exhibition has something fascinating in store,” says Hong. “Tattoos are a way to make what’s inside of you, your experience and your beliefs, manifest on your skin. It’s powerful to encounter that.”
This exhibition was developed and produced by the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. This exhibition and related programs are supported by a generous gift from an anonymous donor. (text by Field Museum).