“Tattoo” Review – From Paris’s musée du quai Branly to Chicago’s Field Museum

Before I visited the Field Museum’s newest special exhibition, Tattoo, my thinking about tattoos was founded by three isolated experiences.  One was a good friend who had survived the concentration camps and retained the tattoo number.  Another was the owner of a tattoo parlor that I visited from time to time, not for a tattoo but to chat with, and sometimes people were getting tattoos.  The last was my husband’s description of attending a professional meeting at the same time that a tattoo convention was taking place.  Never before did I have a reason to put tattoos into a context.

Creators of the Tattoo Exhibit, Photo: B. Keerition

Visiting the exhibition at the Field Museum gave me a very different perspective. I had never considered the historical, sociological, artistic and religious significance of tattoos.  This exhibition offers so much.  It is beautiful and at times, uncomfortable, but, engaging and fascinating, as it explores the global phenomenon of tattooing around the world over time, shedding light on this often-misunderstood art form.


"It hurts"-GettyImages

This is the first time that the exhibition, which was initially developed by Paris’s musée du quai Branly, will be on display in the United States.  The exhibit, which will run until April 30, 2017, features 125 objects telling the story of tattooing, including ancient historical artifacts and intricate contemporary designs tattooed onto silicone models of the human body.


Historical- Tattoo Artist, Photo: B.Keer

The Field is supplementing the exhibition with objects from its own collections. “We have some incredible artifacts related to tattooing in different cultures, and we’ll be including some in the exhibition,” explained exhibition project manager Janet Hong. “We’re also working on some elements of the exhibition that will be specific to tattooing in Chicago.”


Intricate, Photo: B.Keer

It is surprising to learn that people have been marking their skin as a means of expression for over five thousand years—there’s evidence that the ancient Egyptians practiced tattooing, and the body of a naturally mummified man found in the Italian Alps (“Ötzi”) from 3330 BC is covered in 61 tattoos. The methods of tattooing vary widely across time and place—for instance, Thomas Edison held a patent on a nineteenth-century "puncturing pen" that served as inspiration for the first electric tattooing machines—and the stories behind the tattoos vary even more. The exhibition features a seventeenth-century tattoo stamp for Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem to commemorate their journey; meanwhile, it tells the stories of contemporary tattooists like Whang-od Oggay, a 98-year-old Fillipina artist who carries on traditional methods that are thousands of years old.  The video telling her story was astounding.


Portrait of Whang Od- Kalinga tattoo master

I found the videos that depicted the various techniques used to create a tattoo, uncomfortable some of the time.  Ryan Schuessler, Exhibition Developer was on hand to answer questions the day I visited.  One of the videos was difficult for me to understand. I could not determine if the individuals in the video were in agony and needed to be restrained or if they were receiving a tattoo against their will and none of this was what was taking place.  I was so glad that Ryan explained this was a Buddhist ritual that takes place in Bangkok annually.  Tattooed individuals were in a trance and behaving like their tattoos. If one had a lion tattoo, his behavior was that of a lion and so on.


Practice and the real thing, Photo: B. Keer

At the end of the exhibit, there is a tattoo parlor where anyone can make an appointment to get a tattoo on the weekend. “We’ve been working with some of Chicago’s most talented tattoo artists to open the Tattoo Shop at The Field Museum, and they’ve put together some incredible artwork that ties in with the natural history collections at the Field,” says Exhibitions Project Manager Janet Hong. “It’s been amazing to see their different artistic styles play out in how they interpreted the theme.”


Choose from designs on the wall

Visitors can choose from 42 different pieces of flash art (pre-drawn designs) created by local artists to get as tattoos. There are 36 tattooing time slots available to the public, first-come, first-served; to sign up for an appointment, hopeful tattoo-ees can call 312.778.5040


Ancient design, Photo: B.Keer

Find a list of available tattooing dates on the exhibition website at Field Museum Tattoo


Woman tattoo, Photo: B. Keer

Exploring the tattoo room, I met two of the tattoo artists, Zack Stuka and Joel Molina.  They expressed enthusiasm about the exhibition.


Winning designs, Photo: B. Keer

“Whether you’re someone with tattoos yourself or someone who’s interested in contemporary art practices and cultures around the world, this exhibition has something fascinating in store,” says Hong. “Tattoos are a way to make what’s inside of you, your experience and your beliefs, manifest on your skin. It’s powerful to encounter that.”

Be sure to see this exhibition.


Photos: Courtesy of the Field Museum unless otherwise noted.

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