Tattoos: 150 Years Of Body Art
As a traditional art form tattooing and body art will always have a place in art whether people agree with it or not.
Swiss anthropologist Susanna Kumschick has curated an incredible exhibition in Hamburg documenting a 150 years of body art that looks at tattoos as works of art. Now of course many tattoo lovers look at tattoos as art already, but in wider society the division of art and tattoos still stands. The exhibition however is challenging such a division, Kumschick's exhibition was born out of her distaste for the fact that the tattoo industry has not been represented enough when discussing anthropology in the context of art and design.
“Our skin is a wonder, it’s a special kind of canvas... In anthropology you see tattooing in so many cultures and traditions; it’s a strong subject. I started to do research and was surprised that it wasn’t actually a subject in art and design museums until recently. There were a lot of exhibitions in museums of history or anthropology, but not in art and design.” -Kumschick
The exhibition runs until September 2015 at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg and covers almost every aspect of tattoo history, from its maritime beginnings in the west to the modern tattoo culture. A 150 Years of Body Art aims to explore and investigate the reciprocal influence of art, traditional tattoo art and visual design. Physically the exhibition resembles any typical museum exhibition and instead of solely focusing on the aesthetic part of tattoos the exhibition covers culture-specific issues through photographs, paintings, etchings, wood cuts, sculptures, videos, audio tracks, historical specimens of tattooed skin, traditional and modern tattoo equipment and inks to all convey the tattoo tradition and practice of this ancient craft.
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Also the project manager Kumschick looks to the history of artists featuring tattoos in their work and being inspired by tattoos;
“They were always inspired by the aesthetics, from early on – the human body has been a subject in art for a long time, and so is painting on the body.”
An example of part of the exhibition is a project that looks at the way tattoos have been used to stigmatize people and be taken out of their own artistic context. A video within the exhibition shows a tattoo artist re-inking an identification number on the arm of a 92 year old Auschwitz survivor, as an act of 'active remembrance'. Accompanying the video is some text explaining how SS soldiers were like wise given identification tattoos when they had their blood group tattooed under their arms. The project additionally looks at the tattooed gang members of Mara 18 in El Salvador who tattoo themselves in regards to their actions, how long they've been a gang member, how many people they have killed... a dark reminder of the negativity attached to other parts of tattoo culture today!
The exhibition further demonstrates that while tattooing is seen as a rather new art form among celebrities with magazine headlines often dedicated to which footballer got which new tattoo, the fact is tattoos have been a part of popular culture since there 19th century emergence, Kumschick explains;
“There’s a lot of gossip about celebrities who have tattoos today, but it was happening in the 19th Century, the newspapers were full of stories about who had tattoos – it’s not a new phenomenon.”
As a traditional art form tattooing will always have a place in art whether people agree with it or not, and exhibitions such as this are a great way of showing people there is more to tattoos than simply putting ink on skin! Tattoos are a phenomenal medium and unique art form that can express so much with so little, and it is awesome to see tattoos kicking open the door to the wider art world and staking their claim in modern art!