Wednesday, 22 June 2016




As the summer weather finally begins to roll in (today is the second day of summer, so make the days count, people!), humans everywhere shed their clothes and reveal their exciting, strange and highly symbolic inks! Now is an exciting time for the art and science of tattoos; although many people feel tattoos are a too-mainstream and commodified trend, undoubtedly they are being accepted in societies across the globe at an unprecedented level, resulting in wonderful new styles and synergies! In the words of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt:

Tattoos are highly individualistic and reflect the person’s heritage, beliefs, values and imagination. Furthermore, the quality of contemporary tools and the huge spectrum of shades and hues permit artists to use their craft in innovative ways, such as covering up old scars, burn marks, or that Winnie-the-Pooh wearing a bandana that your cousin got on his arm back in 2001.

One way to celebrate the emerging popularity and significance of tattoos, and the synergistic character of tattoo artistry, is to check out the Royal Ontario Museum’s 2016 main event Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art. If you are a museum studies student, I HIGHLY recommend that you see this exhibition! It has incorporated so many museum “best” practices and theories in its content and design. It also supports body positivity! Yay!

"When I woke up, I was covered in 'em!". Tattooed Sailor Talking to His Crewmates. Photographer Unknown. United States, July 14, 1928. Reproduction.
Located in a section of the Crystal, the exhibition seems carved out severe glacial walls. Perhaps in order to stick with the unconventional exhibition theme, the ROM has, for the most part, forsaken wayfinding signage, which may either please or confuse you. I personally enjoyed the non-linearity. There is no suggested timeline to the exhibition material, as it explores over 5, 000 years of tattooing across various cultures, communities and situations. However, the ice-cave like maze resulted in my having missed out on a few tucked-away sections. I understand that since I have visited, some ROM personnel have attempted to alleviate this problem for its visitors with more signage.

My friends watching a video on Irezumi, Japanese tattooing (in this case of the whole body) using a hand-tattooing method. Not for the faint of heart. Photo Credit: Stephanie Read. May 2016.
The exhibition content is so diverse that it has the potential of catering to a spectrum of interests and tastes. Tattoos explores the art, uses and symbolism of ‘ink' in a way that reminded me how lucky we are to decide how, when, where and if we want a tattoo of our own. The history of tattoos is also that of individual agency (or lack thereof), and as a result takes a bold look at issues of colonialism, control, marginalization and social stigma. The exhibition content is diverse, bringing together fresh examples of the works of contemporary “star” tattoo artists, videos explaining the application of ink, objects, stories, representations and narratives which succeed in conveying this nuanced and highly-charged story of colour and line.

One of my favourite pieces from the exhibition. This is a shirt used by Japanese stage actors, part of a costume for depicting a tattooed bandit. Photo credit: Stephanie Read. May 2016.
Interestingly, examples of tattoos by renowned contemporary artists are inked right onto silicone models of body parts, such as legs, arms and perfectly imperfect torsos. I can’t help but remark, however, on the fact that many of the artists decided to draw flowers. Surrounded by the works of tattoo legends across history, I was let down by all of the simple, translucent pink flowers. I noticed that visitors did not linger more than a few seconds to look at many of the models. This is a shame, considering that the models provide a chance to take the time to really look at the tattoos on a person’s body. Every day we are surrounded by tattoos, yet even the most ostentatious designs and colours are hidden from us by the veil of personal space and propriety; the more interesting the tattoo, likely the more self-conscious we will be to stop and linger over someone’s decorated body in the street.

Delicate tattoos on the face, hands and legs hold different meanings and power for Inuit women.Sculpture, Inuit Woman with Tattoos. Artist Dominique Tungilik. Netsilingmiut, Gjoa Haven, King William Island, Nunavut Canada. Before 1989. Photo Credit: Stephanie Read,. May 2016.
Finally, Tattoos is a strong exhibition in its treatment of the subject as highly nuanced, rich and context-specific. It reflects our society’s growing acceptance of a formerly “underground” practice, yet offers a rounded historical approach to understanding why tattoos are powerful signifiers. Whether your canvas is “blank” (like me) or you are an ink veteran, Tattoos will give you a new appreciation for the humanity behind the ink. Be sure to not only give yourself ample time to browse, but also to explore every nook and cranny of the exhibition space. There is some nudity and graphic imagery, so you might want to do a bit more research before you bring the kiddies. 

A fascinating theme of the exhibit was that of the 19th century North American sideshow. Here is a depiction of the tattoo artist Charlie Wagner decorating his wife. He was known for working freestyle, that is without a reference or template. Charlie Wagner from the series Homage to Tattooing Icons.. Artist Titine K-Leu. Switzerland, 1990. Photo Credit: Stephanie Read. May 2016.
In celebration of Tattoos, you can tweet YOUR tattoo and “join the exhibition” at #ROMInk.

Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art. will be on at the Royal Ontario Museum until September 5.

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