By Abigail Yue Wang
We seem to be in a constant bargain with our bodies. Throughout humanity we have been tempted by interplays between the comfort and discomfort of our own skin. The body, perhaps our first nemesis in life, has spawned cultures of physical modification in history. Among them, tattoo culture may be one of the more painterly kinds. So where are we now within tattoo art? For this allegedly one of the oldest art forms discovered in archaeology, the answer is a more complex one than it seems.
Departed from its long tradition in Polynesian milieu, tattoo art traversed cultures and lands over five millenniums. Since its inception, used for talismanic or ritual purposes, ancient tattooing was anything but mere decoration; it confirmed that the body was tantamount to the mind – a worn value that is becoming estranged from our post-digital life. While it remained a discordant rarity in the West until the 19th century, tattoo art was only brought back to light in Europe by the Victorian gentry, who had their first taste in this mystical craft. The “curiosity” seekers in modern Europe welcomed tattoo art into the 20th century, where it saw its heyday from late 1950s to the present – a golden period often considered as the Tattoo Renaissance.
No longer a backdrop of burgeoning cultures, tattoo art has had its place in body politics and the emerging feminist movement from the 1960s, with many more dialogues to come. Contemporary tattoo sees its transition from classic fine lines and Americana to a new variety; not to forget neo-Japanese Irezumi (入れ墨), the modern revival of Japanese traditional full body suits, especially celebrated by the revered Horiyoshi III, whose work will also join the exhibition at Somerset House.
In partnership with Tattoo Life publication, the exhibition revels in works from over 70 tattoo artists worldwide. For tattoo enthusiasts, there surely will be a flavour to each their own. From Mister Cartoon’s signature L.A. street zests to the esoteric memento moris by Paul Booth, Time: Tattoo Art Today celebrates expertise that will keep you on pins and needles, if you let it. Apart from the originals, artists are also commissioned to each create a new piece within the theme of time, on any medium except the usual skin surface. It will be a rare chance to examine whether tattoo remains its quintessence as art, once removed from its principal form.
We are not short of solutions to our physical dwelling; dance is the release, medicine is the cure. By learning to co-exist with the body, we have come to tend it and tease it. To some, tattoo art is no longer mere body alteration nor decorative leisure, but an extended self. Time: Tattoo Art Today will present you a new glimpse into this subculture and the bodily myths.