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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.)
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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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Custom Tattoo Work—Historical Improvisation During William Lithgow’s 1612 Pilgrimage

Travel narratives about Holy-Land pilgrimage tattoos are one of my go-to evidence banks for demonstrating the significant presence and visibility of tattooing in the early modern period (defined as approximately 1450-1850). William Lithgow’s travel narrative (in its various editions) represents probably the most often-cited example of these texts. I’ve lectured many times about the “surprising” nature of what Lithgow writes about tattooing (surprising…only if one believes in the Cook myth), but not published these thoughts. A recent request from a fellow body-art scholar to recap part of a recent talk I gave about Lithgow and other early-modern tattoo wearers made me realize I should write the Lithgow material down for broader dissemination. In doing so, and in relooking at the texts, I had some new epiphanies. So here you go, an updated analysis of the tattoos of 17th-century, Holy-Land pilgrim, William Lithgow:

In 1612, the Scottish traveler and author William Lithgow, apparently along with several companions, obtained tattoos in Jerusalem. This was not a novel idea: pilgrims before him and many more after him had received similar marks of piety. Had Lithgow and others not written about these tattoos, we might not know about them. Standards of dress and the conventions of portrait painting during the early modern period dictated that little skin be shown in formal representations, so images like Lithgow’s portrait in the frontispiece of the volume, costumed in exotic finery from his travels, do not show him as tattooed. (Later, a few travelers, such as German diplomat Heinrich Wilhelm Ludolf, did proudly roll up their sleeves to display their tattoos for visual posterity.)

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The frontispiece to the 1632 edition of Lithgow’s narrative

 

In the first version of Lithgow’s narrative about his travels published in 1614, he writes:

“In the last night of my staying at Jerusalem, which was at the holy grave, I remembring that bounden duty, & loving zeale, which I owe unto my native Prince; whom I in all humility (next and immediate to Christ Jesus) acknowledge to be the supreme head, and Governour of the true Christian and Catholicke Church; by the remembrance of this obligation I say, I caused one Elias Bethleete, a Christian inhabitour of Bethleem, to ingrave on the flesh of my right arme, The never-conquered Crowne of Scotland, and the now inconquerable Crowne of England, joyned also to it, with this inscription, painefully carved in letters, within the circle of the Crowne, Vivat Jacobus Rex.”

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