Sailors, prisoners and soldiers were the first Westerners to mark their skins with ink between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Since then, the practice of tattooing has evolved and spread significantly. It is estimated that 12% of the European population has at least one tattoo. Among the Spanish population, the percentage rises to between 15 and 20% and, if only citizens between 16 and 35 years of age are taken into account, the percentage reaches 40%. “It is curious that a painful, permanent practice that involves a considerable economic investment, such as tattooing, has become so fashionable, leaving behind stigmas”, says Ignasi Miró, corporate director of Culture and Science of the La Caixa Foundation. at the presentation of the exhibition ‘Tattoo. Art under the skin’.
From an anthropological point of view, the exhibition explores the different uses of tattooing throughout history, the social role of this ancient practice in world cultures, and how techniques have evolved. In the exhibition, which was already in Madrid and can now be visited at the CaixaForum in Barcelona until August 28, more than 240 historical and contemporary pieces are exhibited that allow you to immerse yourself in the universe of tattooing.
In addition to drawings, paintings, books, videos, photographs, utensils and tattoo machines, there are twenty hyper-realistic silicone human figures, made from models of real people, who have been tattooed for the exhibition by famous tattoo artists from all over the world. the world. Among them, names such as Horiyoshi III, Filip Leu, Mark Kopua or Laura Juan from Madrid stand out, who reflects on social isolation during the pandemic.
The curator of the exhibition, Anne Richard, affirms that presenting the more than 5,000 years of tattoo history (a word of Polynesian origin that means ‘open wound’) in a single exhibition has been “an enormous challenge”, but she is satisfied with the result for having managed to concentrate “all the knowledge on the subject”. Most of the pieces that can now be seen in Barcelona came to light for the first time in 2014 at the Musée Du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac and, later, were exhibited in nine other cities around the world, in an exhibition that has already seen about 2.7 million people. When the exhibition closes its doors in the Catalan capital, it will continue its tour of other Spanish cities such as Zaragoza or Gijón.
The first part of the exhibition deals with the link between tattoos and marginality and the street world. Various examples of how tattoos were used as a discriminatory element, a mark of submission, dishonor or loss of identity are exposed. The commissioner gives as an example the French soldiers and prisoners who in the 19th century were assigned to the French colonial territories and who were tattooed by the authorities to facilitate their identification and categorization. Similar practices were long carried out in Russian prisons and labor camps with the intention of stigmatizing people who were tattooed.
Starting in 1840, the year of the Universal Exposition in Chicago, tattooed people became an attraction for certain shows, fairs and traveling circuses along with other characters considered unique such as bearded women or sword swallowers. During this time, some people looking to travel the world tattooed themselves from head to toe to earn money by showing off their tattoos. At the same time, itinerant tattooists proliferated, traveling from one place to another with their trunks or briefcases filled with the necessary materials and instruments to draw on the skin. The sample includes several examples of this type of baggage.
The first electric tattoo machine was created by Samuel O’Reilly in 1891 and, from that moment on, various tattoo artists from Europe, America and Japan began to send each other letters to share and exchange their tricks (how to get a certain color, how a new machine they had tried, how to make finer lines, etc.). All this collaboration led to the creation of tattoo clubs. The first of them was the one from Bristol (United Kingdom) that was born in 1953, despite the fact that the art of tattooing evolved faster in the United States.
Anne Richard underlined in the presentation of the exhibition that tattoo artists are artists and that what distinguishes a good one from a mediocre one is that “the master tattoo artist dedicates himself body and soul to it, like a painter who works every day to perfect his art”. As an example, Richard mentioned Filip Leu, who tattoos, draws, makes his own colors and creates his own machines. Among the twenty or so hyper-realistic silicone human figures is one tattooed by Filip Leu in 2013 (see above) that Richard called a “masterpiece”.
Another fundamental part of the exhibition is devoted to traditional and ritual tattoos from various countries in Oceania and Southeast Asia. On display, among others, are samples of the moko, a tattoo of curves and spirals originating in New Zealand that identifies chiefs and warriors; but also Thai tattoos related to magical practices or tribal tattoos from the Philippines and Indonesia. In the CaixaForum exhibition there is also a section dedicated to the tattoos made by people on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The commissioner affirms that today there are still stalls in the streets where these types of tattoos can be done as if they were just another souvenir.
In the seventies of the 20th century, the tattoo entered Latin American culture with force through the criminal gangs known as ‘maras’. Anne Richard assures that the tattoos used by gangs have a “very precise and recognizable aesthetic, since they use fine lines and are done with a single needle, something that few European tattoo artists know how to do.” Gray is the predominant color in this type of tattoo, which often incorporates elements of Catholic religious iconography. In China, tattooing is an ancient practice, especially in those areas far from governments and hegemonic powers. Marking the skin with ink drawings was prohibited during Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution as it was considered a manifestation of impurity and dishonesty. This art, however, resurfaced in the 2000s with inspiration and motifs from pop culture such as manga, video games, and movies; but traditional elements of Chinese iconography were also recovered.
In the last part of the exhibition, different examples are presented of how the tattoo serves to reflect the identity of the individual and how the younger generations of tattooists are divided into two main currents: those based on the reinterpretation of historical genres (the irezumi Japanese, the American old school, the tattoo of the Russian inmates, etc.) and those who are committed to exploring aesthetics far from the classic codes and that can become abstract compositions (such as the arm tattooed by Yann Black that can be seen above ).
The organizers of ‘Tattoo. Art under the skin’ highlighted in their presentation that the figures with hyper-realistic human forms that can be seen with different tattoos have required a whole series of studies about the evolution of ink in silicone to achieve its durability. And, also, that throughout the months of May and June various activities will be carried out around this exhibition. Among them, various conferences and a tattoo night on June 17 in which there will be live tattoo and graffiti demonstrations and where, in addition, there will be live music by the Mejunje Trio.