Few weeks ago saw the inauguration of the great exhibition TATTOO. L’ARTE SULLA PELLE, ART ON SKIN at the Museum of Oriental Art (MAO) in Turin: contemporary artists, tattooists and tattooed, pieces and characters from the past meet and dialogue in these rooms in a fascinating show which is both a journey of discovery and an invitation to reflect on the social, cultural and artistic use of the body.

In ancient times, tattoo was seen as a branding of the defeated or else evoked the ferocity of barbarians gathering menacingly along the borders of the empire. This aura of foreignness and the exotic only increased in the eighteenth century when European explorers who reached Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean came into contact with peoples for whom tattoo was a customary practice. The very word tattoo has its origins in Polynesian (and in Italian derives from the French tatouage) and was introduced into the west by Captain James Cook. The meeting/clash with these faraway cultures was a decisive moment in the evolution of a certain image associated with tattoo, an image which mingled exoticism and the cultural construct of the “savage”. The exhibition TATTOO. ART ON SKIN presents some of the crucial stages in this process, focusing attention on peoples who made extensive use of tattoo and had a strong influence on contemporary art and culture.

Thanks to the loans from the Museo delle Civiltà in Rome, many instruments are on display here connected with tattoo in Asia and Oceania, as well as historic photos by Felice Beato, taken in Japan during the second half of the 19th century, and portraits of Maori from New Zealand. In addition, there is also a selection of prints of the Japanese folk heroes suikoden, executed by the celebrated Japanese artist Kuniyoshi Utagawa in 1827.

The idea of incorrigible savagery associated with tattoo was taken up again by Cesare Lombroso who made a connection between the condition of tattooed criminals in the western world and that of so-called “primitives”, the first time that the practice was dealt with in a scientific manner. Drawings and objects from the Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology and Museum of Anatomy in Turin form an integral part of the exhibition where historic and iconographic material overlap and dialogue with contemporary tattoo culture, profoundly influenced by both the techniques and styles in Asia and Lombroso’s theories.

As tattoo has been fully accepted in popular culture the world over for decades now, in the same way there has been a rise in the number of major contemporary artists who, with a more elitist and cryptic language, use tattoo as a means of expression, based not only on performance but also conceptual art.

There have been a number of examples of this: the Flemish artist Wim Delvoye tattooed large pigs not destined for the meat industry but which were allowed to die of old age; the Spaniard Santiago makes political transgressive use of them; the Mexican Dr. Lakra focuses on minute drawings and street art; the Austrian Valie Export and the Swede Mary Coble have dealt with feminist themes. The Italian artists include Plinio Martelli, with his touched up, decorated photographs, and Fabio Viale with his marble statues.

Contemporary tattooists are represented by major artists in the field, famed for the crucial role they have played on the contemporary scene: from Tin-Tin to Filip Leu and Horiyoshi III. Alongside the work of these leading artists is the work of other Italian and foreign tattooists including Nicolai Lilin, Gabriele Donnini and Claudia De Sabe, who represent just part of the numerous and ever-changing community that Tattoo Life knows so well.

Until 3rd March 2019
MAO (Museo d’Arte Orientale)
via San Domenico, 11 Turin