The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac present “Tattoo,” an exhibition project dedicated to the art of tattooing. Approximately 200 exhibits representing various eras and geographies will unveil the evolution of this cultural phenomenon. This project has been presented successfully at many museums around the world (the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, and the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts). The exhibition in Moscow will be supplemented by pieces of decorative, folk, and fine art from Russian museums and private collections.
Diverse items, ranging from designs by traditional craftsmen to creations by contemporary artists, will depict the stages of tattoo evolution in different regions of the world. The works of active tattoo artists will be displayed with the use of 3D silicone models, which are casts from real people’s bodies made for the exhibition. The artists who contributed their tattoos to the project include the greatest names from all over the world: Filip Leu, Henk Schiffmacher, Jack Rudy, Guy Aitchison, Alex Binnie, Dr. Lakra, Tin Tin, Paul Booth, Horiyoshi III, Leo Zulueta, and many others.
The curators of the exhibition are Anne & Julien of HEY! Modern Art and Pop Culture, prominent experts in the history of tattoo art. They founded the HEY! platform, where they dedicate various projects to their explorations of popular, elite, and marginal cultures and their mutual influence. One of these is the “Tattoo” exhibition, which debuted in 2014 at the Musée du quai Branly and turned into a landmark event.
Having evolved from a traditional body practice to an integral component of contemporary visual culture, the art of tattooing long ago earned the right to be exhibited in museums. By offering its spaces for this project, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts is fulfilling its mission both as a museum of fine arts and as a museum of the history of civilizations. The exhibition for the Moscow audience will have additional sections. It has been considerably expanded by works of visual art from Russian museum holdings and private collections, and it describes the phenomenon of tattooing in the broad context of cultural history. Covering the more than 3000-year history of one of the earliest body modification practices, this explorative exhibition will tell about the diversity of tattoo shapes and functions, its transformation under the influence of various circumstances, and its significance for contemporary culture.
According to archaeological findings, the custom of tattooing goes back to ancient times. One of the earliest examples belongs to the ancient Egyptian civilization. The exhibit will include a spoon depicting a swimming girl with a lotus flower from the New Kingdom period (14th century BC). This piece of art, which is well known to the Russian audience, will be seen in a new light: few people realize that there is a figure of the god Bes tattooed on the girl’s thighs.
A special section will be devoted to the tattoos of the indigenous people of Oceania, where this tradition existed and developed over centuries until the arrival of Europeans in the middle of the 19th century. The art reached incredible sophistication in form and content. The patterns or ornaments, as well as the areas of the body to be tattooed, depended on a person’s gender, social status, and stage of life. The present-day art of tattooing in the Marquesas Islands is represented by the works of Dmitry Babakhin, a Russian artist from St. Petersburg who researches and retrospectively reconstructs this cultural tradition. All exhibition sections depicting tattoo art in Oceania will present silicone models that display the works of many tattooists, including contemporary local artists, as well as ethnographic articles, ritual objects, and tattooing devices.
In Japan tattooing developed as an art of special importance. Ribbon-shaped tattoos around the lips, on the forearms, and on the backs of hands were common for Ainu women who lived in Hokkaido. Tattooing served as an element of initiation rites. This tradition reached its culmination in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868). In the 17th century, tattoos were seen most often on men who tended to work with a bare torso, including builders and fishermen. For the upper class, such as warriors, body drawings were considered an undignified decoration. Moreover, during the Edo period, tattoos on the faces, hands, and other visible parts of the body were used to punish criminals. Despite the fact that tattoos in Japan were only common for certain social groups, they acquired a unique form of large figurative pictures that covered large areas of the body. By the first third of the 19th century, Japan saw the rise of professional tattooists, who found inspiration in engravings of the Ukiyo‑e school. In fact, full-body tattoos emerged under the influence of these Ukiyo-e artists, whose works will be presented in the exhibition.
Several sections will be dedicated to tattoo art in Europe and America. Regarding the European tradition, tattoos served as a punishment in ancient Greece and Rome, as they were used to brand defeated enemies. In the Roman Empire, branding served to identify slaves, gladiators, and early Christians. For the people who inhabited the ancient ecumene, tattoos served the opposite purposes. Picts, Celts, and Britons perceived them as a sign of distinction or high origin.
As geographical boundaries expanded and distant lands were colonized, two parallel processes were developed: ordinary members of sea crews, seeing the tattoos of the natives, applied the same images as souvenirs, while the leaders of expeditions studied the body drawings as an ethnographic curiosity, saving them in sketches and descriptions. Starting at the end of the 17th century, travelers brought tattooed “savages” from distant lands to European countries for public display.
Tattooing was practiced in all of the North American Indian tribes, from Inuits to Crees, but with the arrival of European colonists, their culture gradually became restricted to the boundaries of reservations. After the end of the colonization process, tattooing in the United States developed in isolation from the traditions of its indigenous population and was inspired by European patterns. The specific graphic features of American tattoos (like bright colors and bold contours) took shape by the first half of the 20th century. In the United States tattoos were mainly seen on sailors and soldiers. The first tattoo parlors were opened in New York in the 1870s. The electric tattoo machine, patented in 1891, brought new technical capabilities and stimulated the development of an innovative style. Until the middle of the 20th century, sailors and soldiers were still the most common tattoo wearers, as well as circus performers. However, the 1960s gave birth to a new cohort of tattooists, who often had artistic education and promoted tattoos as an art, as well as a new category of customers: rebellious youth. This was the beginning of a revival era for tattoos, as the art form gradually progressed beyond the realm of the marginal culture.
In Russia tattooing was also developed over a long period of time within closed communities and became most widespread in the criminal environment. By the end of the 20th century, the proliferation of criminal tattoos among the representatives of this social group gradually faded. Prison tattoos became a part of the international style, and the semantic boundaries of the images acquired more flexibility. The exhibition will feature photographs by Sergei Vasiliev, who visited detention facilities between the 1970s and 1990s and documented the tradition of Russian criminal tattooing in all forms.
Today, the figurative language of tattooing is popular among contemporary artists. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts will present the works of Wim Delvoye from Belgium and Fabio Viale from Italy. Choosing tattooing as one of their artistic techniques, Delvoye and Viale refer to the wide range of its social and cultural meanings and accompanying associations. The Italian sculptor Fabio Viale works with Carrara marble, a high-quality natural stone. Using reproductions of antique sculptures, Viale covers their snow-white surface with tattoos from the Russian criminal world and drawings in the Japanese style. Museum visitors will see three of Fabio Viale’s sculptures and twelve works by Wim Delvoye.
At the end of the 20th century, tattoo masters introduced the term “tattoo artist,” thereby raising their works from the level of craft to the artistic dimension and rejecting the distinction between “high-profile” elite art and popular art. Having acquired their own visual language, tattoos gradually moved beyond closed systems and became a part of the contemporary culture.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a printed booklet and an educational program, including lectures by exhibition participants and tattoo artists Henk Schiffmacher and Dmitry Babakhin.
The exhibition was designed and arranged by the Musée du quai Branly in Paris.
Exhibition curators: Anne & Julien (HEY! Modern Art and Pop Culture)
Exhibition curators at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts: Varvara Shkermeneva, Deputy Head of the Exhibition Department, and Aleksandra Savenkova, Lead Specialist in Exhibition Activities
Exhibits: ca. 200 objects Paintings, drawings, photos, sculptures, traditional arts and crafts pieces, and archive and ethnographic materials.
Participating museums: Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, State Hermitage, Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Kunstkamera), State Historical Museum, and Russian State Library, as well as Wim Delvoye’s studio, Italian artist Fabio Viale, and private collections.