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A new exhibit ponders the problem of preserving skin art by Victoria Handysides

Whether they’re aware of it or not, anyone etched with permanent ink is a living, breathing work of art, their skin a squishy, organic canvas.

While tattoos, in their traditional ink-to-skin format, are commonly considered “permanent,” they’re not (in the broader sense of the term), Owens Art Gallery intern Nicole Sharp says.

“Over time, it’s going to change. As the skin renews itself and the way it either fades or skin loses elasticity, it’s going to change shape. Eventually, after you die, your tattoo will decompose with your skin. If you were to have a tattoo you were truly passionate about, there’s really no way to preserve it or pass it on to anyone. You have it for your lifetime and then it’s gone.”

The gallery is preparing to launch Tattoo, an exhibition that investigates the archival properties of tattooing as an art form.

The exhibit was borne of Sharp’s interest in art conservation and from an essay she wrote, examining the notion of preserving tattoos. Sharp doesn’t have any tattoos herself. She could never decide on an image she’d like for the rest of her life, she says.

“If we look at them as an art form, in comparison to paintings and sculptures that we put a lot of effort into preserving, should those methods be applied to tattoos? If so, how would we do that?” she asks.

By and large, tattoos have become accepted by mainstream society. Moreover, an increasing number of galleries are beginning to showcase exhibitions on tattoos as art, or as a form of narrative expression. Even in the four short years Sharp spent at Mount Allison, she noticed an increasing number of classmates getting new tattoos. It’s almost more abnormal these days to remain unmarked.

The gallery has compiled over a dozen pieces on loan from four notable contemporary visual artists from Canada, Europe and the United States. They’re not tattoo artists specifically, but artists who use tattoo art, or facets of tattoo art in their own works.

Black and white photos from Belgian artist Olli Bery are included in the exhibit, which document the intricate process of applying ink to skin. Vancouver artist Jason Fitzpatrick’s pieces are paper pressings of ink and his own blood, collected as a tattoo was etched down his spine. American artist Ellen Greene’s additions are traditional sailor tattoo-style paintings applied to vintage gloves, while Danish artist Jacob Dahlstrup Jensen uses a tattoo gun to hand emboss images on paper.

On the subject of conservation, Sharp says she hasn’t decided whether tattoos should be preserved in some way.

“Maybe that’s what romanticizes it. That it’s about having the tattoo for the time it’s there, and once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

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Sackville Take in Tattoo at the Owens Art Gallery, 61 York St. from March 9 until April 22. The exhibition’s opening reception will be held at the gallery on March 9, beginning at 5 p.m. Owens is open seven days a week and admiss