Not just skin deep
Ruth Guilding is captivated by a ground-breaking exhibition that celebrates the rich artistic heritage of tattoos
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:// nmmc.co.uk; 01326 313388)
Co-curator Derryth Ridge commissioned her own tattoo especially for the exhibition
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