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The body’s artistic potential: Tattoo Exhibition on Display at the Owens. By: Joel Young

Once a form of outsider insignia popular among biker gangs and crooks, tattoos have now found their way into fine art galleries. Really, it’s strange to think that an art form as difficult and interesting as tattooing would ever be distanced from the world of contemporary art. Tattoo artists are fine artists who have perfected their craft; in many ways the human body seems like the perfect vessel or canvas for artistic expression. Setting aside society’s stigmas, the logistics of a tattoo exhibition are a different matter. How do you go about exhibiting something that is permanently embedded on human skin? How to you archive something that is essentially, by definition, impermanent?
Nicole Sharp (BFA ‘11) has the answer to these questions. Sharp is this year’s Owens Art Gallery intern, and she curated the exhibition, Tattoo, currently on display in the Owens.
“I was interested in the drastic change in the perception of tattoos in our culture in recent years,” Sharp told The Argosy. “Until several decades ago, tattoo parlours were actually illegal in several [US] states.”
Sharpe wanted to explore the relationship between tattoo culture and the realm of high art, and the ways that tattoos serve as both an inspiration for art, and as an art form themselves. Tattoo consists of the work of four artists who each have a unique interpretation of tattoos as a cultural signifier and an object of art.
Tattoo includes several black and white photographs by Olli Bery, a freelance photographer based in Belgium. The photographs show the detail and precision of the tattooing process, the moment in time when skin first meets ink. It seems as though Bery is not trying to photograph the actual tattoo, but rather the process itself.
Jason Fitzpatrick, a Vancouver based sculptor, installation and performance artist, takes an extremely different perspective of the tattoo process. Tattoo includes prints and video that are documents from a performance entitled Bite and Burn (2006-2007). Taking place at galleries in three different regions of Canada (including Struts Artist Run Centre), Fitzpatrick’s performance involved receiving a tattoo and having a printmaker use his freshly inked back to create prints. What resulted was a series of bloody and inky prints that document the tattoo process as one of visceral experience, pain, endurance and, perhaps above all, commitment.
Chicago based artist Ellen Greene takes vintage women’s gloves and adorns them with classic tattoo images. Her pieces on display at the Owens offer a unique perspective on the idea of covering up one’s body. Tattoos have traditionally denoted the masculine realm in Western society, so what happens when you mix classic tattoos with an accessory associated with feminine modesty? The idea of exhibiting a tattoo that isn’t on a body brings to mind the idea that often tattoos become material things that are treated in similar ways to clothing or other accessories.
Continuing in a similar vein, Jacob Dahlstrup Jensen also brings the physicality of tattoos to the fore. Dahlstrup, a Copenhagen-based artist, uses paper hand embossing with a tattoo needle and pencil to explore the visual language of tattoos. It seems as though tattoos are a language, a system of signs that denote certain things to certain people. Dahlstrup’s work calls attention to the extent to which tattoo images have pervaded other art-forms.
If you haven’t had a chance to see it yet, there is still time; Tattoo will be on display at the Owens until April 22, 2012.