Tattoos have had tumultuous and multi-faceted histories as objects of admiration or contempt. From a symbol of pride and honour in many civilizations, a brand of shame and criminality in others, the tattoo is now seen as a globalized aesthetic trend while retaining some of this “mysterious” edge and ambiguity. Popular but still largely alternative, accepted socially yet still refused in most office environnments, there is still a great deal of fascination and ambivalence around it, which the Tatoueurs, Tatoués exhibition attempts to explore.
Tattoos encompass a huge aspect of so many societies around the world that attempting to retrace its roots and evolution up until contemporary practices could seem more than a little ambitious and hefty. However, rather than forming a large academic monolith of information, this exhibition retained an easygoing, lively approach which was, however, often a bit too light explanation-wise, compared to the amount of visual content it packed in. The first particularity of this exhibition is that it is conceived by two guest curators, Anne & Julien, first and foremost art editors and galerists, tatooed enthusiasts mainly in touch with contemporary art world. Their artistic consultant is the famous French tattoo artist Tin-Tin, who is also president of the national syndicate of tattoo artists in France. A refreshing trio, backed by the scientific and scenographic know-how of the Quai Branly, or a risky choice?
The exhibition kicks off with a rather macabre selection of tattoos on dried-up human skin, remnants of colonialist discoveries of tattooing practices, which were actively repressed in African and Oceanian cultures while this trend travelled through sailors and travellers, winding up as a marginalized tradition in Europe. These are complemented by various other objects – the first tattooing tools, stamps and images, such as this 18th century stamp from Jerusalem, representing the ressurection of Christ.
By the 19th century, tattoos in Europe and the US were dubbed as a visual marker for prison environments, circuses and prostitution – whether intentionally or not. The portrait of an Algerian woman bearing her tattoos with pride stares back at us, below, as we learn that the French governement chose to “interpret” these symbols of honour as those of a marginal and of a prostitute. Much is to be said about the destruction of a tradition and the racist aspect of this vilified and exotifying reappropriation of tattoos – but this is often skipped in favour of the strange kitsch imagery that prison archives such as the Recueil Lacassagne have left behind.
The notion of tattoos emerge as a record of personal, bodily experiences while still remaining linked to a community and its rituals. Pain is as much a part of the process that the image itself, if not more. In fact, for the most part early prison tattoos were not concerned with aesthetics. They are shamelessly ugly and crude, as prisoners use their torsoes, backs and arms as organic pages for dry mottos and ‘postcards’ (usually a portrait of a woman with ‘Souvenir d’Afrique’ stamped above) or political caricatures. The cold and objective police and military archives become portraiture and paint a humorous, jarring, often poignant range of experiences and insights.
The ‘freak show’ nature of the fully tattooed man and the aura of danger he exudes for the audience becomes an integral part of circus culture at the beginning of the 20th century, which is explored both through photographs and recent footage of current circus performers or models such as the Lizard Man or Rick Genest aka Zombie Boy. Another characteristic shared by circuses is the myth of the travelling tattoo artist, allowing for new influences and images added to his portfolio – like this 19th century Egyptian paravent “advertising” a travelling tattoo artist’s range of image-making.
Then again, this “renaissance” of tattooing and its increasing popularity is counterbalanced by the loss of specific traditions and rituals for a more globalized, “americanized” vision. The exhibition is good at showing the ambiguity between a European tradition that has absorbed others and the persistance of tattoo cultures specific to a country or tribe.
These historical and geographical snippets, mostly shown through tattoo-decked portrait photography and a few compelling artefacts lead us through small corridors that create a complex maze of different countries and issues – from circuses and North American tattooing I stumble upon the evolving Japanese tradition of the irezumi full body tattoo – from a means of ornamentation in 17th century Japan to a means of punishment to a symbol of pride for yakuza…back to a trend cautiously creeping back despite a persistent gang-related taboo. Strangely enough, these tattoos extending from the wrists and neck to the ankles are not only stunning compared to their early European counterparts but also concerned with either heroic themes or symbols drawn from nature and spirituality. What do they mean? How did they vary? Unfortunately, these questions remain unanswered: like most of the traditional tattoos in the exhibition, any explanation of precise symbols and iconography is lost on the visitor.
Instead, each winding twist and turn of the exhibition as it explores every corner of the globe – from New Zealand’s moko to fine line latino tattooing or Polynesian traditions is paired with a contemporary reinterpretation of this tradition, by a practising tattoo artist, using torsoes, arms and legs covered in a synthetic ‘skin’. After the initial gruesomeness of this display – disembodied show window arrangement meets tattoo parlour – these objects inject a twist of originality and creativity into the exhibition.
Rather than grouping themselves at the end, they intersperse in a way that allows to travel back and forth between them. Sometimes, these projects were so complex that they remained two-dimensional aspect, mapped out on paper and yet to be created on a true body, showing a different side to the process that we may imagine for most tattooing: rather than accumulative, added tattoo per tattoo on an ever-evolving canvas, these projects show that many clients entrust their tattoo artists with an overall plan that can often cover an entire back or arm (or indeed, behind, as pictured above).
I loved these projects and their dramatic display, that added to the sheer eccentricity of an exhibition that flitted through so many visual influences and evolutions of the tatoo – but in a sense this strength was also its weakness.The exhibit left me wanting of a bit less style and a bit more substance. The problem with the desire to create an exhibition that is both anthropological and artistic is that one notion is probably going to end up stealing the other’s thunder. In this case, the anthropological side definitely lost, which is startling within the Quai Branly itself. I would have liked to see a little less on the aesthetics and artistic evolution of tatoos throughout the ages and more on the specific symbolism surrounding different tattoo cultures.
There is no clear sense of chronology as we dip into various rooms, and although I would not particularly mind if the evolution of tattoo culture was not the focus…it definitely is here! For this reason the rythm seemed slightly off at times – just as we advance into an entire section devoted to contemporary tattoo artist’s own personal tattoo projects, the exhibition suddenly veers off into Renaissance and Old Masters depictions of tattooing, before moving on to something else entirely. An exhibition without a specific order of visit is fine for me…as long as there are no narrow corridors that seem to impose one upon the visitor anyway.
This exhibition was bursting with fascinating images and objects but was not perfect presentation-wise and its content was not always homogeneously explained. However, it largely compensated with a personal and deeply passionate vibe that justified its occaisional messiness and experimentation. For me it contrasted in a lot of ways of the Māori exhibition at the Quai Branly several years ago, curated by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. This was a guest exhibition that let Māori culture curate itself, on a precise, insider level that created emotion as well as clear explanation about their civilisation and art. Here, an insider’s passion about tattooing and its confusing, multiple histories is felt in the same way, and it takes us by the hand into a wild ride of archives, objects and visual intensity. It also acheived something that I have not ever encountered in museums or galleries – works of art by current tattoo artists exhibited in a contemporary art mindset that is not only meant to be aesthetic, but provocative and humorous, exploring the various ways in which the pratice may evolve and thrive.