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Review: Tatoueurs et Tatoués at Quai Branly Museum

3 June 2014

Author : julia-silverman


With innovative displays and an unprecedented roster of contributors, Tatoueurs et Tatoués, is an ambitious new exhibition in Paris that aims to explore the multifaceted nature of tattoos and tattooing: from social markers to sites of cultural exchange to works of aesthetic beauty. Curated by Anne & Julien and advised by famed French tattooer Tin-Tin, the exhibition displays works from tattooers from Europe, America, Asia, and Oceania: Filip Leu, Dong Dong, Xed Lehead, Horiyoshi III, Mark Kopua, and many, many others. Attending simply to view the fantastic array work would be an acceptable end.


Tattooing, as a form that lives on a moving body, is not especially conducive to a museum setting, and Tatoueurs et Tatoués sets a remarkable precedent for tattoo exhibitions in the future. In a collaboration with Atelier 69, the museum developed a skin-like silicon, from which thirteen “body excepts” were cast from live models. The excerpts were then given to thirteen tattooers who tattooed directly on the “skin.” Curators also sent blank canvasses to 20 other tattooers, who used more traditional art materials to map “body suits” onto them. These materials were then combined with a series of photographs, featuring the work of Guy Le Tatooer and Jonas Nyberg among others, and displayed along with the more traditional “archival”documents one might find an anthropology exhibition.

MQB. Exposition anthropologique : "Tatoueurs, tatoués". Du 6 mai 2014 au 18 octobre 2015.

Portrait de femme Algérienne

To me, the role of tattoos as objects of display, both within the museum exhibition and without, is all-important. Tattoos, given their attachment to the body, have managed to defy commodification, partially as a result of their inability to be displayed and thus sold. Of course, mounted skins and flash have their own history of display, but the curatorial decision to create ersatz tattoos from paper and silicon is especially interesting. Anne & Julien state that the exhibition aims to celebrate the “artistic dimension” of tattooing, and while the “body suits” do this more explicitly with traditional “art” materials, the silicon forms allow a close inspection of technique and composition that public interactions with tattooed people often prohibit. Of course, the question remains: what are the challenges of curating a tattoo exhibition in which the primary materials are not human bodies and their tattoos? How do these substitutes change the works, both conceptually and aesthetically?

The other main success of this exhibition was the curators’ concerted effort to discuss tattoos as social markers (both inclusionary AND exclusionary) and sites of cultural interaction. From American sailors in Borneo to in influx of Japanese tattooing practices and imagery in Europe, tattooing has a history of intercultural exchange. The exhibition addresses these exchanges from a number of angles, including an introduction to Chicano- (or Cholo-) style tattooing through works by Jack Rudy and Dr. Lakra to a discussion of tattoo’s role in Polynesian tribal revitalization efforts and the assumption of tribal motifs in Western tattooing. I especially appreciate the exhibition’s acknowledgement that tattooing, like all cultural phenomena, are ever-evolving with the people and cultures that create them. The exhibition’s discussions of revitalization, reinterpretation of motifs, and modern tattooers’ conversations with tribal elders depart from a notion of the “tribal” as something pure, traditional, and static.

Leu-and-ChiméLocal Fashion in Kad Luang Market ¿ Chaiangmai

I am often deeply skeptical of expansive shows, such as this one, for fear that the breadth of material precludes a nuanced account of each practice. And indeed, the scope of the exhibition is ambitious, spanning a temporal period from Ötzi to the present, and a geographic scope ranging from Japan to the United States, Samoa to the UK. While I particularly enjoyed reading of modern Chinese traditions along with 19th Century flash, many of the historical and some narratives cited in the show did not stray far from tropes of tattoo history established long ago. For example, the complete dismissal of African practices and assertion that Native American tattooing “did not go past the borders of future reservations” was somewhat troubling. Luckily, other sections of the exhibition presented far more nuance, for example, by addressing the way missionary systems altered existing “traditional” practices, rather than simply obliterating them. Given that the focal point of this exhibition was the modern works created for the show, however, historical blurbs were of secondary importance.


Tatoueurs et Tatoués could have easily been chopped into ten separate exhibitions. The curators stated: “We know this exhibition is bold. This is a deliberate choice. Its intent is to link up with the tremendous energy flow that is shaking the present-day movement.” And even at the occasional expense of curatorial restraint, the immense quality of contributed work and sheer force of its intent make it worth checking out.

For more information, visit the site of the Musée du Quay Branly. The exhibition runs until October 18, 2015.

MQB. Exposition anthropologique : "Tatoueurs, tatoués". Du 6 mai 2014 au 18 octobre 2015.

-Image Credits-

All exhibition photos © musée du quai Branly, by Gautier Deblonde.

Photos of Silicon “excerpts” © musée du quai Branly, by Thomas Duval

“Body Suit” images © musée du quai Branly, by Claude Germain

Portrait de femme Algérienne, 1960, © Marc Garanger, Collection of the artist

Local Fashion in Kad Luang Market ¿ Chaiangmai © Dow Wasiksiri

Silicon Credits, in order:

Left: Tin-Tin, Right: Mark Kopua

Left: Filip Leu, Right: Chimé


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