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Spectacle Over Scholarship: Three Museum Tattoo Exhibits

Part 1: A Long Overdue Tattoo-Exhibit Critique

I so very much wanted to be able to write a positive review of the Field Museum of Chicago’s version of the tattoo exhibition that was put together by the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. I wish I could write something like: “As a scientific institution with a long history of supporting scholarship, the Field Museum diligently corrected the content mistakes of the original Tatoueurs, Tatoués show.” But instead I have to write: “The Field Museum’s new tattoo exhibition, while beautiful on the surface, is as fatally flawed as the previous two iterations of a show that should never have been allowed to travel to world-class institutions.”

I’ll frontload a quick tl;dr abstract of my criticisms:

  • There are numerous content errors throughout the exhibition, particularly in the way “Western” tattooing is contextualized.
  • The notion of “Tattooing in the West” as separated out from “global” or “non-Western” indigenous tattooing is a dated and unnecessarily dichotomous concept that smacks of colonialism and a hierarchical approach to studying culture.
  • Many of the images in the show—images presented as artifacts, not as supplementary material—are reproductions rather than originals, when originals would have been easy enough to borrow. That many of these reproductions were sourced from photography clearing houses seems scandalous from a museum-academic standpoint; this is the same material that anyone with internet access can find with a few keywords.
  • The show privileges design aesthetics over substance to provide “experience” rather than any substantive education.
  • Poor curatorial choices resulted in some artifacts that are only tangentially related to tattooing (with no good explanation as to why they were included) and other artifacts that pale in comparison to superior examples readily available to borrow from multiple public and/or private collections.
  • Women’s tattoo history is barely present in this exhibition; where it exists, it’s often treated voyeuristically. (Hat tip to my colleague Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray who noticed this when we were visiting the Toronto version of the show together.)

I’m not quite sure how tattooing “made its way to Europe” on the skin of sailors and adventurers when it had been present in Europe since circa 3300 BCE–long before people sailed or adventured, just one of several errors in this introductory panel to the “West” section.

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Book review: Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants

I had promised book reviews when I started up Tattoo History Occasionally a few months ago. So…with the holiday giving season ramping up, I thought I’d start to crank some of these out (I have a large backlog). Those of you interested in tattoo history can add some interesting items to your wish lists or purchase these for like-minded recipients.

First up, an incredible audio book, Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants, tracing the life of the Moskowitz tattoo family out of New York. This 2-cd set provides a wealth of insight into old tattooing techniques and equipment, the culture of tattooing from the 1920s through the 1980s, and more general social context. It mostly revolves around Walter Moskowitz’s experiences, but also includes stories of his father, William (Willie), who learned from Charlie Wagner.

A picture of Walter and his brother (and fellow tattoo artist) Stanley, 1950s

The project is impressively produced by Walter’s son Douglas Moscowitz who narrates throughout and seamlessly ties together all the audio clips. I particularly appreciated that this is not just a recording of a guy talking, but a professional oral history carefully edited with introductions to the clips, interjected context, different voices, and even background music here and there to keep the audio lively and provide ambiance. Hearing these stories as oral history brings them to life in a way that reading the words on pages would not. Besides tattoo history, a wealth of other material made the history nerd in me happy, such as anecdotes about life during WWII.

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