Chicago to get inked with tattoo exhibition

Traditional Japanese irezumi tattoos, dating back to 10,000  BC, are scheduled to be featured in the “Tattoo”exhibit at the Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive. 

By Mackenzie Crosson

Uniting art, history and popular culture, the Field Museum of Natural History will paint a colorful chapter with its new exhibition, “Tattoo,” opening Oct. 21.

The exhibit, which has been in the works since July and runs until April 30, 2017, explores cultures from around the world with ancient traditions of tattooing. The historical reasons for tattooing have included identifying social standing to healing rituals, personal expression, religious beliefs or occasionally even punishments, according to Janet Hong, the exhibition’s project manager. 

“There aren’t any animals that will [adorn themselves],” Hong said. “[Tattoos are] something that makes us distinctly human.”

According to a July 14 press release, the exhibit, which is having its U.S. debut, will display 170 objects initially curated by musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris.

The oldest tattoo in the exhibit dates back 5,000 years to the Italian Alps, where a man’s body adorned with 62 tattoos was naturally preserved. The Iceman’s body, known as Ötzi, is famous in the world of science preservation because his body was naturally mummified after being frozen in the freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall of the Alps, according to Hong.

Because body art is a significant part of contemporary popular culture, “Tattoo” places the art form in a historical context. Alaka Wali, curator of North American Anthropology at the Field Museum, said current tattoo art culture reflects a myriad of influences.

“So much of what we think of as popular culture today is informed by music, art [and] practices from different cultures [that] have gone on over time,” Wali said.

The exhibit will also include aspects of Chicago’s contemporary tattoo culture. The work of Guy Aitchison, a tattoo artist from Creal Springs, Illinois, will be displayed on a series of silicone replicas of the human body.

 According to Hong, these tattoo sculptures feature a life-sized torso on which Aitchison has tattooed his own designs. Chicago Tattoo and Piercing Company, the oldest tattoo studio in the city, will also have one of its artists, Joel Molina, tattooing at the exhibit.

Wali said the exhibit opened her eyes to the vast amount of tattoos that there are in Chicago and in modern culture today, especially among young people.

“It’s pretty awesome how much tattooing has become widespread,” Wali said.

Jessie Barber, a shop manager at Chicago Tattoo and Piercing Company, 1017 W. Belmont Ave., said Chicago’s rich history of tattooing suggests the exhibit could act as artistic inspiration for the local tattoo community.

“Meeting other people, whether it be within our city or beyond, who have shared those same experiences helps make a connection I haven’t found through many other avenues,” Barber said. “I would hope to think that’s world-spread.”

Wali said the museum is hoping the exhibit will be popular with younger Chicagoans, who are at home with this art form.

“In the ‘90s, people felt [tattooing] was a fad, and it would fade away, but I think it’s just getting stronger and stronger,” Hong said.