Whether you’re a fan or not, tattoos are becoming more common in our world. We wouldn’t double take at a person with a tattoo sleeve today, but just a few decades ago, tattoos were still considered “taboo.” Today, over 1 in 5 adults have tattoos in both the United States and the United Kingdom, and the tattoo trend of expressing oneself through body art continues to grow in other parts of the world.
This recent shift in our cultural values has drawn much attention from art field as well. Whereas before, tattoos were considered a symbol of deviancy by the westernized world, museums and art curators are beginning to appreciate “getting inked” as a true art form, marking the individuality of human beings. An example of this recent appreciation for tattoos as art can be found at the Musée du Quai Branly, which is currently hosting an exhibition titled Tattooists, Tattooed.
Normally, when we visit a museum exhibit, we expect to see arcane artifacts, ceramics, and paintings from ages past. Tattooists, Tattooed is an incredibly unique experience because the museum is exhibiting solely the art on human bodies throughout history.
When you visit the exhibition, a variety of multimedia hooks you to the walls. There are films with grainy old footage of sailors and veterans showing off their primitive plethora of tattoos, which are basic in their composition compared to the tattoos we see today. There are also drawings illustrating the earliest tribal tattoos and documentaries of spiritual ceremonies applying tattoos to ward off evil non-living entities.
Getting inked has traditionally served a function, which isn’t the case with the more artistic expression of Western tattoos today. For example, in Māori tribal culture in New Zealand, the “moko,” a tattoo normally covering the face, is a rite of passage into adulthood and the ultimate affirmation of identity. The facial tattoo signifies the wearer’s place in his or her family and specific tribe. Another use for tattoos included punitive tattooing in ancient Greek and Japanese cultures, where the forever visible symbol of a criminal would suffice as punishment.
It was only around the twentieth century that tattoos as a “spectacle” entered their golden age in Western cultures because of traveling circus performers. Tattoos began to spread to mainstream culture in the 1980’s when traveling tattoo artists met with tribes and cultures practicing tattooing all over the world.
According to the museum, “In urban societies and in the ‘westernised’ lifestyle, [a tattoo’s] marginal character is fading and it is becoming a relatively common bodily ornament.” The exhibition shows that we are currently witnessing an unprecedented revival of traditional tattooing, drawing heavily from traditional Japanese ancestral tattoo styles and traditional tribal markings.
It’s easy to lose yourself in “Tattooists, Tattooed” for a couple of hours. The Musée du Quai Branly provides an excellent in-depth exploration of the original purposes for tattoos to the evolution to the types of tattoos we see on the streets today. It’s important to know the artistic influences for what we choose to mark ourselves with, and this exhibit provides a context for today’s tattoo phenomenon.
Tatouers, Tatoués (May 6, 2014 to October 18, 2015)
Musée du Quai Branly
37 Quai Branly, 75007 Paris, France
(Free for students)