Not just skin deep

Ruth Guild­ing is cap­ti­vated by a ground-break­ing ex­hi­bi­tion that cel­e­brates the rich artis­tic her­itage of tat­toos

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

Sailors, so­cialites, pil­grims, punks and roy­alty have all shared a taste for ink­ing per­ma­nent de­signs onto their skin. in 1900, an ar­ti­cle in Coun­try Life il­lus­trated tat­toos of a fox mask and hunt­ing crop on the arm of a ‘prom­i­nent MFH’, a ki­mo­noed Geisha and a coat of arms. Mem­bers of the royal Fam­ily and the russian, Dan­ish, span­ish and Ger­man Courts had ‘also had de­signs done on their per­sons,’ the mag­a­zine re­ported. and yet, within a few decades, a tat­too was largely stig­ma­tised as the mark of a crim­i­nal or ‘ruf­fian’.

‘Sym­bols of love, loss, na­tional iden­tity, re­li­gious faith and pa­tri­otic fer­vour’

The story of how the Bri­tish fell in and out of love with this very per­sonal form of body art is a com­pli­cated, cul­tur­ally di­verse one, as this pi­o­neer­ing ex­hi­bi­tion makes clear.

The Na­tional Mar­itime Mu­seum Corn­wall took a bold step in mount­ing this show, al­lay­ing fears that core vis­i­tors—tourists and fam­i­lies, yachts­men and other ‘boaty’ types—might be af­fronted by the sub­ject. Two key staff mem­bers worked hard to dis­pel prej­u­dices and pre­con­cep­tions.

Der­ryth ridge, cre­ative lead for the ex­hi­bi­tion, proudly car­ries the (brand-new) tat­too that fea­tures on the mu­seum’s gi­ant ban­ners all around Fal­mouth bla­zoned on her right thigh. it was adapted from one seen in an old pho­to­graph of a mem­ber of the Bris­tol Tat­too Club: a fully rigged galleon and the motto ‘Not Just for sailors’.

Cu­ra­tor stu­art slade points out a dis­play of 100 la­tex hands and fore­arms, each in­tri­cately em­bel­lished by lead­ing con­tem­po­rary tat­too artists to il­lus­trate the very best of mod­ern fash­ion and in­no­va­tion. There are loans from the Well­come Col­lec­tion’s med­i­cal skin col­lec­tion, re­con­struc­tions of tat­too booths and the col­lected pho­to­graphs and sto­ries—fan­tas­ti­cal, ro­man­tic, sad or funny—taken from the bod­ies of en­thu­si­asts from all walks of life who have turned them­selves into ‘liv­ing works of art’.

The show opens with the fan­tas­tic ‘wild’ men, an­cient Pic­tish Bri­tons inked with swirling bright-blue body art (which the oc­cu­py­ing ro­mans mis­took for tat­toos) as imag­ined and drawn by the Tu­dors. an­other er­ro­neous be­lief held that Capt Cook and his sailors had brought the art back to Bri­tain in the 1770s, fol­low­ing their en­coun­ters with the highly pat­terned bod­ies of the na­tive New Zealan­ders.

The truth is more com­pli­cated and more dif­fuse: some of Cook’s sailors were tat­tooed en voy­age and oth­ers, in­clud­ing the draughts­man on Dar­win’s ship, HMS Bea­gle, re­turned

with their travel boxes bound in the ink-pat­terned skin of dead Maori war­riors. The Tahi­tian word tatow ap­pears in Cook’s diaries, but the English word was adopted from Fanny Bur­ney’s de­scrip­tion of her meet­ing with the Tahi­tian Omai in Lon­don, tak­ing her spell­ing from the mil­i­tary term for a rapid stac­cato beat.

And yet, 100 years ear­lier, Euro­peans were al­ready wear­ing tat­toos. The cul­ti­vated Ger­man Hein­rich Wil­helm Lu­dolf, who was at­tached to the Dan­ish Em­bassy in Lon­don, posed for his por­trait in the act of rolling back his sleeve to show Christ on the Cross and the date of his pil­grim­age to Jerusalem, 1699, fill­ing his arm from wrist to el­bow.

Ev­ery sailor in the Bri­tish navy could use a nee­dle to darn, mend a sail or mix ink with a lit­tle gun­pow­der and prick de­signs onto the bod­ies of his com­rades. Naval records noted their dis­tin­guish­ing marks, sym­bols of love, loss, na­tional iden­tity, re­li­gious faith and pa­tri­otic fer­vour.

Back on dry land, closeknit broth­er­hoods—pub­lic school­boys or crim­i­nal gangs—wore match­ing tat­toos. How­ever, too much weight has been lent to the records of pris­oner tat­toos pre­served in jail reg­is­ters, skew­ing the his­tor­i­cal data. In fact, tat­toos were in ev­ery sec­tor of so­ci­ety, but re­mained largely hid­den then, thanks to the dress codes of past times.

Af­ter Ja­pan re­opened to trade in the 1760s, wealthy tour- ists, the fu­ture Ge­orge V among them, re­turned from the East with ori­en­tal dragons em­bla­zoned on their arms and chests. ‘Smart’ tat­too par­lours opened in Lon­don and dar­ing flap­pers ex­hib­ited theirs in back­less evening dresses. But it was the long­ing for per­ma­nency in the pre­car­i­ous­ness of two World Wars that em­bed­ded this prac­tice in Bri­tain’s cul­tural life. Sol­diers and their sweet­hearts pledged each other with nee­dles and ink and, post-armistice, par­lours were kept even busier mark­ing in the em­blems of dev­as­tat­ing per­sonal loss and me­mo­rial.

These touch­ing pe­riod de­signs sur­vive on the tat­too par­lour ‘flash’ sheets from which each cus­tomer made their choice. Lions and Bri­tan­nias, bare-breasted pa­tri­otic fe­males with sailor hats and Union Flags around their thighs, swal­lows, hearts and the beloved one’s name: this mass mo­bile art­form is still car­ried on in so­phis­ti­cated stu­dios and old-fash­ioned par­lours up and down mod­ern Bri­tain.

‘Tat­too: Bri­tish Tat­too Art Re­vealed’ is at the Na­tional Mar­itime Mu­seum Corn­wall, Dis­cov­ery Quay, Fal­mouth, un­til Jan­uary 7, 2018 (https://; 01326 313388)

Co-cu­ra­tor Der­ryth Ridge com­mis­sioned her own tat­too es­pe­cially for the ex­hi­bi­tion

Next week:

A rare ex­am­ple of an early tat­too flash, which was used as a sales tool Bri­tish artists and the cas­tle at Southamp­ton City Art Gallery

Far left: Ma­jor con­tem­po­rary artists have been com­mis­sioned for the ex­hi­bi­tion. Matt Hous­ton’s de­sign is a ‘heroic cel­e­bra­tion of the sailor tat­too’. Left: Capt C. E. Rad­clyffe, with his fam­ily coat of arms tat­tooed on his chest, pub­lished in COUN­TRY LIFE

in 1900

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