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Aba Bayefsky: The Tattoo Series

20 January 2014

Author : jamiejelinski


“So far everybody seems upset by the subject of tattooing. They all want an analysis of the reasons for being tattooed and cannot see the paintings as art – which it is. I simply refuse to do an analysis for these people who are always asking the wrong questions. It seems to be the viewers who are more inhibited than the tattooed people.”

-Aba Bayefsky

Aba Bayefsky (1923-2001) was a Toronto-based artist and educator. Bayefsky studied art at Toronto’s Central Technical School and later at the Academie Julian in Paris, France. During the Second World War, Bayefsky enrolled in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and eventually became an official war artist, with a mandate to depict air operations in north-west Europe. Following the War, Bayefsky became an instructor and the Ontario College of Art, now known as the Ontario College of Art and Design, and in 1958, joined the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. In 1979, Bayefsky was made a member of the prestigious Order of Canada, indicating that his work as an artist was deemed to have importance at a national level.

In the late 1970’s Bayefsky developed an interest in tattooed individuals – echoing a broader cultural acceptance of tattooing that was beginning to take hold in Canada at the time. However, Bayefsky was not merely an outsider looking into an exoticized subculture and practice. Similar to the way in which he participated in the war while simultaneously being a war artist, Bayefsky became an insider to the world of tattooing. This is exemplified by the numerous trips that Bayefsky took to Japan between 1979 and 1982. During these trips, Bayefsky met with and painted a number of tattooed individuals and tattoo masters. Bayefsky also corresponded extensively with the Japanese Association of Tattoo Artists and Fans, as well as with tattoo master Horihide, otherwise known as Kazuo Oguri, who had already established contacts with Westerner’s such as Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy. During his time in Japan, Bayefsky also met with Mitsuaki Ohwada, who would later travel to the United States for an early exhibition of Japanese tattooing at the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. In 1986, the same year that Ohwada travelled to the United States, Bayefsky was made a lifetime member of the Tattoo Club of Japan.

Despite his interest in tattooing, the Canadian art world did not share Bayefsky’s enthusiasm. In 1981 Bayefsky exhibited a series of his tattooed portraits, and as Thomas Beckett remarks, “Initially the Tattoo series was not well received. The tattoo was a controversial subject matter, an underground hidden world, too gritty and avant-garde for many.” Nevertheless, Bayefsky’s tattooed portraits have since been posthumously revisited in recent years, being exhibited at a number of Canadian galleries and museums, indicating a renewed interest in this body of work.

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