Ötzi was a man who died about 3,255 BC. C. in the Ötztal Alps, on the border of Austria and Italy. It was found by two German mountaineers in 1991 at an altitude of 3,200 meters above sea level, and was originally believed to be a recent corpse. However, it turned out to be the opposite. It is considered the oldest natural human mummy in Europe and was key to studying what humanity was like during the so-called Copper Age. He had arthritis, tooth decay, or bearskin clothing. He also had a type of art that remains to this day: 68 tattoos that, precisely, were intended to serve as a healing remedy for inflammation of his joints.
The findings of tattooed mummies in different parts of the planet testify that these marks on the body have been, practically since the beginning of history, essential to place people within a system of social and political relationships. The tattoo is a symbol of collective identity, and that is why 12% of European citizens currently have at least one.
Hence the relevance of Tattoo. Art under the skin, An exhibition that can be visited at CaixaForum Madrid from this Thursday to April 17, 2022 and that explores through 240 works how tattoos have become a form of world artistic expression. It is curated by Anne Richard, founder of HEY! Modern Art & Pop Culture, who has claimed to have “an artistic obsession and attraction for tattoos” practically since childhood. “When the tattoo is lived so much it also seems that something is owed to him. This exhibition tries to observe what it has contributed to the world and what it can offer in the future, because it is something eternal,” he assured the curator in a wheel of press.
What is proposed in the exhibition is, therefore, a journey in five stops that starts with a global perspective to understand the link between the tattoo and the marginal. Because, as reported through informational posters, for centuries the tattoo has played a discriminatory function, of dishonor or loss of identity. This is what, for example, happened during the Vietnam War (1961 – 1975) with the recruits who were tattooed with the words Sat Cong (death to communists) to prevent them from switching sides. Also in Iraq, where the punishment for deserters from the Gulf War was to lose part of an ear and an X tattooed between the eyes.
There was a time when tattooing was also a thing of freaks, an example of what was outside the norm and that precisely for that reason should be pointed out. For that reason, at the end of the 18th century, explorers brought tattooed “savages” from their voyages to the West Indies who were exhibited in circus shows. This was the case of James F. O’Connel, a Dubliner enlisted in the navy who was captured by an indigenous chief during an expedition and was tattooed with bamboo instruments and thorns. After managing to flee, he was displayed as a tattooed “victim” at street fairs. Alongside animal trainers and jugglers were tattooed people, something that on the other hand kept hundreds of specialist painters busy for decades. One of them was Fred Johnson, who had a long 65-year career and was known as “the Picasso of circus art.”
The representation and use of the tattoo is different depending on the area of the world analyzed, although there are also links between regions a priori separated by kilometers of ocean. “Japan is one of the countries in which the landscape is most practiced, so some North American tattoo artists began to travel there in search of new knowledge. They exchanged secrets about the technique, the color or even the way to insert the needle,” he says Anne Richard as she enters the exhibition area designed to review the representation of tattoos on different continents.
In the case of the Japanese, the tattoo defined as horimono arose during the Edo period (1603-1868) and had a historical evolution similar to that of ukiyo-e, also known as the art of Japanese printing and one of the most significant artistic expressions in its history. Especially surprising was the tattoo that covered almost the entire part of the body, which could reach the wrists or ankles, although it also became taboo due to its relationship with the universe of the Yakuza (Japanese organized crime).
The exhibition collects a large part of these examples in a somewhat peculiar medium. They are silicone molds made by different people who, according to their curator, have not been easy to manufacture. They were commissioned to a specific study to make it of an innovative material, one with the capacity to retain the ink and that would not give many problems to the tattooists when working on a plastic, indicates Richard. The result is an arrangement, at times unsettling, of different members encapsulated in display cases that serve as canvases for art.
Also, although Richard points out that the tattooist is mostly a male profession, there are also examples of women who may not have received as much media attention. They are cases like that of the Philippine Whang-Od Oggay, considered the last and oldest artisan of the traditional tattoo of the Kalinga tribe. He began tattooing at the age of 15, when the practice was restricted to men, and still today at 104 he is still active in the small rural town of Buscalan. Dozens of clients come to her, but it is the tattoo artist herself who decides who deserves one of her latest creations.
The end of the tour delves into the meaning of tattoo today, where two currents are distinguished: that of artists who reinterpret classical techniques and those of those who explore new aesthetic formulas. But, regardless of the winning side, the only thing clear is that artistic expression is something rooted in the origin of human beings and that not even the skin is spared from its effects.