There’s something really the matter with most people who wear tattoos,” Truman Capote once said. But he was thinking of the characters he came into contact with when he wrote his novel In Cold Blood about murderers in Kansas. While tattoos don’t carry the stigma they once did, they continue to inspire emotions ranging from revulsion and outrage to curiosity and admiration. With the exhibition “Tattoo,” the Field Museum goes more than skin deep to explore the history and impact of this ancient art.
Humans around the globe have been inking up one way or another for thousands of years. The images marked on the body have served all sorts of purposes, from offering eye-pleasing adornment to standing as marks of honor or dishonor. The show considers tattooing in antiquity and Native American traditions; it visits the circus sideshow and the classic Americana tattoo parlor.
Originally developed by the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris — an institution devoted to indigenous art — “Tattoo” comprises historic and contemporary material from across cultures. “There is a lot of variation on the use and meaning of tattoos in non-Western societies,” says Alaka Wali, the Field’s curator of North American anthropology. “Inuit and Mojave women were tattooed to mark the status of achieving adulthood or motherhood. Maori tattooing often signified lifetime achievements. The Kalinga of the Philippines sometimes used tattoos to designate warrior status.”
Not every tattoo has been celebratory. From ancient Rome and Imperial China to the Russian Gulag, slaves and prisoners have been forcibly tattooed, and the exhibition doesn’t shy from shedding light on this history. But as Wali notes, the emphasis of the exhibition is “on the aesthetics and creativity of the tattoo artists.”
With the increasing number of Americans sporting tattoos (a 2015 Harris Poll suggests 29 percent of Americans have at least one), this body art is less exotic than in the past. But even aficionados of the practice will find some of the examples on view stunning, such as the full-body designs from Japan and Thailand, as well as dozens of designs by renowned contemporary artists, including Illinois-based master Guy Aitchison. Taking it all in, one might well remember Melville’s description of his tattooed creation Queequeg: “a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume.”
Oct. 21-April 30, 2017, Field Museum of Natural History, 1400 S. Lake Shore. For tickets (starting at $23), visit Fieldmuseum.org
Pictured above: A silicone torso tattooed by French artist Tin-Tin