Currently reading : A Chat with Miki Vialetto, Co-curator of Time: Tattoo Art Today
Since “Time: Tattoo Art Today” opened on July 3rd at London’s Somerset House, the exhibition has been redefining the way the public views tattoos and their creators. While the exhibition focuses upon tattooing, it has departed radically from recent shows by featuring artworks that, while created by tattooers, are not tattoos. Predicated upon tattoo’s growing popularity and influence into mainstream art culture, this exhibition explores how some of the most influential tattooers of the last thirty years have been creating work that re-imagines the medium of tattoo and its artistic potential.
For the exhibition, the co-curators, publisher Miki Vialetto and tattooer Claudia De Sabe selected 70 tattooers–including Chris O’Donnell, Horiyoshi III, Alex Binnie, and many others–to create works revolving around the theme of “time,” not on skin, but using the materials traditionally associated with fine art. By freeing tattooers from the constraints of collaborating with clients, the show hopes to focus on the ways in which the practice of tattooing and the aesthetics of tattoo and flash have reached an audience outside the medium. From Shawn Barber‘s incredible time-lapse painting of Kim Saigh to Chris Garver‘s classical nude, with undulating dragon “tattoos” resembling china porcelain, the exhibition not only provides an outlet for tattooers to expose their work to a greater public, but also reveals the many influences from art history upon tattooing.
Sang Bleu recently caught up with co-curator Miki Vialetto to chat about the exhibition.
What were your goals for this exhibition when you were first conceptualizing it? How did you first approach Somerset House with the idea for this show?
The idea for this exhibition emerged from the desire to create an event to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the London Tattoo Convention, which will take place this September. At the same time, we wanted to celebrate tattooing for what it is recognized as today–an art form–and provide an up-to-date image of tattooing’s very essence through an exhibition. As I talked with Claudia de Sabe (co-curator of the exhibition) during last year’s London Tattoo Convention, we had the idea of showing at Somerset House, as it is one of the most important venues dedicated to art in London.
And so, together, we started to think about this project and decided to create an artistic itinerary in which tattooing would be represented not on skin but through traditional art mediums. As a team, we worked on creating the foundations of what the exhibition needed to be and identified which artists we wanted to invite.
Somerset House, which dedicated an exhibition to the art of Horiyoshi III the previous year, immediately expressed an interest in our project, and so, in collaboration with Somerset House, we worked together for almost an entire year towards the realization of this exhibition.
Why did you choose to make the exhibition themed? How did you settle on “time?”
When we were thinking about how to bring this project to light, we tried to identify a concept that could group the chosen artists together under the same image. The concept of time is intrinsically linked to tattooing, and to the ephemeral nature a tattoo has, because it shares the same destiny as the person wearing it. Time is also a recurring subject in many tattoo styles, and this allowed all the artists involved in the project the possibility to express themselves in their own style. Finally, time is naturally linked to the idea of celebrating the tenth anniversary of the London Tattoo Convention.
Have you found that tattooers approach the notion of time differently that other artists because the nature of their work itself is so temporal? How does the treatment of tattoo’s ephemerality change when artists finally create works that are not on the body?
Each individual artist approached and expressed the subject of time in their own personal way, projecting his or her own professional skills and artistic background onto a variety of different mediums – paper, canvas, wood, plaster and other supports. I don’t believe that tattooists interpret this theme any differently from traditional artists; we can say that while the visions and responses from the participating artists are eclectic and varied, in each piece we can find many connections and references to art history. This part mixes unequivocally with the alphabet that makes up the language of tattooing, giving an extra dimension. The fact that the artists worked on supports that were different from skin allowed them more freedom to express themselves artistically. Of course, since they weren’t working on a client, with his or her expectations, they were able to extend their vision out in complete freedom.
As I’m sure you know, there was a recent show at Quai Branly that involved tattooing on silicone body parts. To me, this was interesting in that people were trying to think of how to display tattoos in the museum. Your exhibition consciously steers away from that method, instead very emphatically pushing “tattoo art.” How and why did you make this choice, and how has it affected the curatorial process?
Yeah, it’s really wonderful that in the same year another important institution like the Quai Branly museum in Paris chose to host tattoo art in its halls. I was present at the opening and the level of quality in this exhibition is very high. We could say that the two exhibitions complement one another: Anne and Jules’ exhibition aimed to place an accent on the anthropological, historical and sociological aspects of tattooing. On exhibit are some very important pieces, coming from both private collections and important museums like the Louvre, and the exhibition explores the history of tattooing from its origins to present day. The show also presents the most current consequences of this art form, like tattooing’s contamination with fashion, and the fact that tattooing has become a “mass” phenomenon and is no longer a niche, etc. Our idea, however, was to focus on the purely artistic aspects of tattooing, through the presentation of works created specifically for this exhibition, which might indirectly present, as I mentioned before, the concepts and themes which form tattooing’s incredibly vast vocabulary. The key point of our exhibition is the concept that tattooing is a well-recognized art form with its own soul, which also permeates other creative expressions like fashion and the graphic arts, for example (just think of the covers of music albums…)
Part of why I feel this show is interesting is that it seems to forcefully push the notion of tattooers as artists by stressing their use of fine art media. While I truly believe that tattooing, especially that of the participants in your show, needs to be (finally) treated with critical rigor, many tattooers I’ve talked to have claimed to see themselves not as artists, but rather as designers or craftsmen. How do you feel personally about this tension/binary, and how is it addressed in the exhibition?
Tattooing is and must remain a job for “artisans,” in the sense that creating a tattoo involves both working with one’s hands and having a connection to your artistic soul, which cannot be considered in any other way. The work of tattooing has always maintained an aspect linked to handicraft, in the sense that it involves a client who requests a given piece of work. At least this is how tattooing was born. From the 80s on, this craft was then transformed into a true form of art, thanks to tattoo pioneers Don Ed Hardy, Filip Leu, Alex Binnie and others. Today, defining tattooing as artisan work is no longer a universal concept for all tattooists, because while some people limit themselves to carrying out designs created by others, many others create original pieces which are commissioned by clients who choose them as artists.
What were some of the biggest surprises you encountered in curating this show? Were there any commissioned works that arrived that you found completely unexpected?
Yes, there were two tattooists who had initially created installations that were too conceptualized and that didn’t link well enough to the subject we had proposed. And so I had to ask them to make new pieces which would be more in line with our project. At the same time, it was such a great surprise to open each box and take stock of the immense creativity which each person had expressed in their artistic piece.
With 70 works in this exhibition, how did you choose how to group them within the exhibition space?
The contribution of Somerset House’s artistic direction was fundamental, because they came from a viewpoint which was completely outside tattooing. This allowed us to create an exhibition that has an overall aesthetic harmony throughout; for example, in thinking about the walls, various aspects were taken into consideration: the uniformity of color and graphic lines, the color palettes used, and important references which were all integral parts of the various works.
You co-curated this show with tattoo artist Claudia De Sabe. As a publisher and tattooer respectively, how did your different professions dictate the curatorial process for each of you?
Working with Claudia was perfect, because our professional backgrounds complemented one another in the realization of this project. We were always on the same wavelength and were able to resolve those challenging moments which inevitably occur, when organizing events of this kind. Claudia is part of that new generation of tattooers which brought about a change in the image of contemporary tattooing. As for me, my focus was on choosing the participants based on a decision that aimed at identifying not only the top-notch artists, but also those people who have contributed in one way or another to changing the history of tattooing over the past 30 years, evolving tattooing into a true art form.
What role do you feel nostalgia plays in this exhibition?
Nostalgia is closely linked to the subject of time, and in our exhibition this aspect is particularly evident, especially if I think about the fading roses in Rose Hardy’s piece, or the incredibly beautiful painting by Paul Booth in which a woman, who head has already become just a skull, still tries to gaze into a mirror in search of her own beauty and vanity.
How has the response been from the artist who participated? What about from the public? Do you feel like this exhibition is exposing tattooers’ talent to a wider audience?
Everyone knows how important this happening is for the world of tattoos. Having one’s art recognized in such an important institutional venue was received with great enthusiasm. Obviously this is an opportunity to open the doors of tattooing to people who would never set foot in a tattoo shop.
One of the things that really stuck out to me in viewing some of the work from this show is that certain tattooers, even some who are recognized “fine” artists, created works that still very much depended on the bodily form, such as Chris Garver, Luke Atkinson and Dr. Lakra. Other works, like Filip Leu’s and Guy Aitchison’s completely departed from the body. Can you talk about this contrast a bit?
Each artist offered their own interpretation: some focused on the medium, searching for something different and original to express themselves with, while others wanted to provide a more traditional expression linked to art mediums. I think there’s great beauty in the contrast found in Chris Garver’s work between the cleanliness and beauty of an almost neo-classical body and the tattoo designs which “damage” it.
This is a terrible question to ask any curator, but are there any works from this show that you’re planning to take home? Any favorites?
This is a very difficult question to answer because I have a deep emotional bond with many of the artists involved in this project. I, too, began my professional career in the tattoo scene in the early 90s, and I’ve witnessed all the artistic changes which have occurred from that moment on. There has always been incredible reciprocal support between me and these people… I also “discovered” some of these artists when they were just starting their careers, and I’ve watched as they’ve grown to become who they are today. Therefore, yes, the value of an emotional bond definitely played a decisive role in the choice of certain pieces. This has been the best way for me to celebrate this important objective in my own professional career, as well. In fact, once again, I’d really like to thank everyone who has believed in the work I’ve been doing.
It runs through 5 October 2014.
Thank you to Margherita Baleni for translating.