Now open: British Tattoo Art: Reclaiming the Narrative at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall

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Now open: British Tattoo Art: Reclaiming the Narrative at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall
The 100 Hands. Photo: Ian Kingsnorth.

FALMOUTH.- The National Maritime Museum Cornwall opened its new temporary exhibition: British Tattoo Art: Reclaiming the Narrative, which will run in Falmouth until 16th April, 2023. Featuring 14 pieces of newly commissioned work created by 14 Black and POC tattoo artists, all working in the UK today, these new artworks represent a celebration of contemporary tattoo art on Black and brown skin. The installation forms a powerful artistic response to the museum’s critically-acclaimed 2017 exhibition Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed, which was the largest gathering of real objects and original tattoo artwork ever assembled in the UK.

Reflecting on the original exhibition approach, which was groundbreaking in challenging deeply held cultural stereotypes about tattoos and tattooing in terms of class and gender, the installation responds to, and highlights, the current conversations around representation taking place in museums and galleries, as well as in the tattoo industry. These works have been commissioned to address omissions and cultural biases contained in the narrative of the 2017 exhibition, and are intended to be a direct intervention into a wider, necessary and vital conversation around diversity of representation – historical and contemporary – in the story of British tattoo art.

Guest curated by Alice Snape, and created in partnership with lead artist Charissa Gregson aka Glasgow-based Tattoo artist Rizza Boo, of Shadow Work Tattoos, British Tattoo Art: Reclaiming the Narrative is displayed as a thought-provoking and powerful challenge to the National Maritime Museum Cornwall’s own cultural decision-making around the original 2017 show.

The new installation runs alongside a re-display of key artworks from the museum’s critically-acclaimed 2017 exhibition Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed, which has returned from a three-year national tour.

Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed explores the history of tattooing, from the rich maritime legacy of tattoos, to wider society’s tattooed heritage. From ruffians to royalty; from sailors to socialites; from pilgrims to punks: tattoos have been etched into bodies throughout British history as a means of expressing both individual and group identity.

Highlights from the original show that have returned to Falmouth include The 100 Hands Project, which is based around 100 silicone arms, each tattooed with an original design by 100 of the leading tattoo artists working across the UK, as well as major contemporary art commissions from three tattoo artists working in very different tattoo traditions.

Historical objects and artefacts returning for display include a recreation of artist Lal Hardy’s first tattoo studio from the 1970s and the tattoo box of Britain’s first female tattoo artist, Jessie Knight.

Charissa Gregson, Lead Artist Statement: “Following the brutal killing of George Floyd in 2020, people all over the world have been engaging in more conversations about social injustice, police brutality, institutional racism and anti-Blackness.

We saw this echoed through the tattoo community with clients and tattooers sharing some of their experiences of anti-Blackness within the industry, ranging from subtle microaggressions to outright racism. There were conversations about the lack of appreciation and representation of black artists, insensitivity when tattooing cultural subject matter, the harmful effects of whitewashing photos of clients to fit a specific aesthetic and the general lack of knowledge and misinformation around tattooing darker skin.

We know that representation matters. This exhibit feels like an important addition, showcasing the work of Black and POC tattooers, making sure we are included in this particular record of tattoo history. It is a small sign of progress that the plaques and silicone arms used in this project are now available in a slightly more diverse palette, which one would hope will continue to expand. Offering a wider range of colours, skin tones, so that even more people would see a representation of their skin included in an exhibition like this.

When asked to contribute to this project, it was obvious to me that we must get more artists involved. A single piece by one artist would only be the illusion of diversity and give a false impression of the cultural and artistic diversity that actually exists in our communities. Holding space for more artists and giving platform to their creativity, gives a truer look at who is tattooing in Britain right now. With this project we seek to disrupt and challenge some of the misinformation, give voice to the individual artists and allow us to share some of our collective story."

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