“Tattoo” at the Natural History Museum
"We want to tell stories across continents and cultures, while also telling the unique story of Los Angeles," explains Lori Bettison-Varga, president and director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. The museum's latest exhibition,"Tattoo," on display at the NHMLA through April 15, 2018, certainly achieves this mission.
Featured throughout the exhibition are legs, arms, and torsos made of silicone, inked by tattoo artists from the UK to France, from Taiwan to Samoa. Some showcase traditional patterns, such as Maori artist Mark Kopua's torso designed with peha ("story on the skin"), and Malaysia's Ernesto Kalum Umpie, who provides an example of the country's Iban culture. Others like French artist Tin-Tin, who showcases his mastery of neo-Japanese style, demonstrate the way cultures volley influence back and forth in an increasingly interconnected world.
The exhibition gives women of the industry their due. Photographs and memorabilia of people like Dainty Dotty, one of many from the sideshow circuit who helped present tattooing to the masses, are on display. Alongside them are shots of SoCal pioneer Painless Nell, and Jessie Knight, Britain's first full-time professional tattoo artist, who left their marks alongside their male counterparts when more staid industries didn't afford women the same status.
One of the most important contributions to tattooing in the last 50 years has been the shaded, realistic style of black and gray, which started here in Los Angeles. In a video installation, influential L.A. tattoo artists like Freddy Negrete and Jack Rudy explain its origins in pinta, or "prison" style, where members of the Chicano community who were incarcerated gave each other tattoos using only a single pin or guitar string and black ink.
In another video installation, artists discuss the history of Long Beach Pike, which in the first half of the 20th century boasted the greatest concentration of tattoo parlors in the U.S. This was due, in large part, to the sailors who imported tattooing from New York at a time when it was underground and illegal there. Getting a tattoo from Bert Grimm's or China Sea was considered a rite of passage.
On selected weekends throughout the exhibition's run, prominent Los Angeles tattoo artists will be available by appointment to give tattoos in the exhibition's makeshift parlor. Patrons can choose from pre-determined pieces of "flash" by Louie Perez of L.A.'s Shamrock Social Club and others, and join the ever-expanding human canvas. As Gretchen Baker, Vice President of Exhibitions, explained, "This isn't our story. It's yours."
Written by Marybeth Connaughton