Mark of prestige: exhibition to explore culture and history of tattoos

Barcelona exhibition to showcase tattoo art from Japan and Polynesia to Thailand and Los Angeles

After decades of negative associations with marginal or even criminal lifestyles, tattoos are having a cultural revival in the west. But for centuries, they were a mark of prestige in the east and among the peoples of the Pacific.

Now the history of this ancient art is on display in the exhibition Tattoo: Art Under the Skin at the CaixaForum in Barcelona.

The exhibition, a collaboration with the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris, offers a panorama of the art, from Japan and Polynesia to Thailand and Los Angeles.

The Paris museum invited leading tattooists to reproduce their finest work on silicon replicas of body parts, some of which are in the exhibition.

The word tattoo comes from the Polynesian tatau, meaning to hit or strike, and was possibly introduced into English via the explorer Captain James Cook.

The colonists who came after Cook outlawed the practice, which they viewed as either decadent or barbaric, and incompatible with Christian virtue.

A woman takes a photo of a man with facial tattoos at the exhibition.
A woman takes a photo of a man with facial tattoos at the exhibition. Photograph: Alejandro García/EPA

In the post-colonial era, however, Pacific nations have revived tattoos as an inherent part of their culture and identity, most recently with tā moko facial tattoos among Māori people in New Zealand.

In Japan, tattooing had only ritual significance until the mid-18th century when ornamental tattoos became fashionable, reaching its apogee in the 19th century as the complete tattoo bodysuit.

Japan’s yakuza gangsters take pride in elaborate tattoos that they conceal from the public. It appears they adopted the practice as a riposte to irezumi kei or the tattoo penalty, whereby convicted criminals were forced to wear visible tattoos, often on their faces, so that people would know what crime they had committed and where.

Thai sak yant tattoos are traditionally associated with the sacred and divine and are believed to give the bearer immunity from illness and bullets.

The geometric style was popularised in the 1990s by the actor Angelina Jolie. The same artist tattooed Brad Pitt with symbols designed to bind them as husband and wife, but the couple separated shortly afterwards.

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Tattoos are now so common that Virgin Atlantic airline has had to lift its ban on cabin crew having visible tattoos.

Tattoo: Arte Bajo la Piel is at CaixaForum until 28 August


Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

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