PARIS — As the world map that leads the new tattooing exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris plots out, the art of skin alteration has roots in every continent, from the Iroquois in North America to the Samoans in the South Pacific. So in an ambitious exhibition, the museum is delving into the history of tattooing in tradition and its place today in the exhibition Tatoueurs, Tatoués.
A 2010 poll from Pew Research recorded 23% of people in the United States as having a tattoo, so it’s fair to say we are far beyond them being transgressive or used as a stigma, such as in Japan up until the late 19th century where prostitutes were marked and criminals’ arms were ringed as symbols of their crimes. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that Tatouers, Tatoués chases the Musée du Quai Branly’s exhibition on hair — Cheveux Chéris — as the practice is now as much an art and a style as a symbol. Yet the museum, which opened in 2006 to focus on global indigenous culture, is in a unique position to bring in the deeper history, anthropology, and iconography of tattooing.
The approach, curated by Hey! creators Anne & Julien, is a bit like the rest of the museum itself, where artifacts and displays mingle freely in a rolling space designed by Jean Nouvel. This has its pros and cons, as around each corner of the curving chronology of the show is something intriguing, such as the 2011 “Migrant Mother”-style portrait by Jake Verzosa of Apo Whang Od, the last woman to be tattooed in the Kalinga tradition of the Philippines, and the strange tale of the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Kabris, who was shipwrecked in Marquesas Islands and completely adopted the culture. After living there from 1796 to 1804, he resisted returning to his home country, but eventually headed out as a traveling sideshow and wrote on his experiences. This crosses with modern artists like Mark Kopua, Yann Black, Leo Zulueta, Xed Lehead, and Filip Leu who have tattooed silicone body parts for the exhibition, which hang with unintended eeriness like meat on hooks in curiously curtained display areas.
The propelling argument of the exhibition is that tattooing has no solitary meaning, but a significance that is incredibly strong for anyone who practices it. This is compelling in places, such as the documentation of the sharing of techniques between Japan and the United States, a fusing of two traditions that resulted in the contemporary style we know today, with Martin Hildebrandt setting up his tattoo boutique in New York in 1846 and Samuel O’Reilly inventing the electric tattooing machine in 1881, and the decorative tattooing of the Edo period in Japan’s late 19th century.
The undercurrent to all this is a loss of the ritual in the rise of the mainstream tattoo. Not enough time in the exhibition is spent one some of the fascinating uses of ink in skin as mystical and spiritual devices. Incredibly striking objects like tattooed skulls and bits of dried skin and even an entire arm pocked with designs have a whole underground market of trading human remains that demands more context. (Kabris, that early tattooed European, had himself buried anonymously to avoid his skin from being sold after his death.)
Tatouers, Tatoués stretches all the way until October 2015, so there should be plenty of time to sift through the 300 pieces of the sprawling exhibition. While the narrative is rambling and skims through centuries and cultures in a whirl, there is much here in the old needles, sideshow artifacts, and photographs and videos of proudly displayed skin that reflects the universally reverberating attachment to the art of transformation through tattoos.
Tatoueurs, Tatoués continues at the Musée du Quai Branly (37 Quai Branly, Paris) through October 18, 2015.