New exhibition announced for 2017: Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed

17 March 2017 – 7 January 2018

The National Maritime Museum Cornwall is excited to announce its major new temporary exhibition for 2017; Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed.

This highly anticipated exhibition offers a genuinely ground-breaking and comprehensive history of British tattooing, featuring cutting edge designers, leading academics and major private collectors, to tell a story that challenges long-standing myths and pre-conceptions about tattooing when it comes to class, gender and age, whilst at the same time giving a voice to and celebrating the astonishingly rich artistic heritage of tattooing as an art form in the UK.

Showcasing the work of major tattoo artists from George Burchett, via the Bristol Tattoo Club, to Alex Binnie and Lal Hardy this will be the largest gathering of real objects and original tattoo artwork ever assembled in the United Kingdom.

The exhibition features items from three of the most important private collections of tattoo material in Britain, providing a rare opportunity to display original artwork and artefacts not otherwise on public display. The exhibition also delves into previously unseen private archives that reveal hidden histories, including the incredible real story of Britain’s pioneering female tattoo artist, Jessie Knight.

Tattoos are a living and uniquely three dimensional form of art. The Museum has responded to this by commissioning an innovative installation which will literally bring the art off the gallery wall to create a ‘sculptural map’ of British tattoo art today. The ‘100 Hands Project’, curated by Alice Snape of ‘Things and Ink’ magazine, is based around one hundred silicone arms, each tattooed with an original design by 100 of the leading tattoo artists working across the UK. As a whole, the quality and diversity of this work is astonishing. This exhibit represents a major achievement for any Museum, and will create an important artistic legacy for future generations – an archival ‘snapshot’ of a form of art all too often lost to the ravages of time.

The exhibition also includes three major contemporary art commissions from three tattoo artists working in three very different tattoo traditions. Each artist will create a unique design on a hyper realistic body sculpture which will speak to the historic artifacts and artworks around it. In response to stories in the exhibition about Captain Cook’s voyages to the Pacific, Tihoti Faara Barff’s work celebrates the modern revival of Tahitian tattooing; Matt Houston’s commission is a heroic celebration of the sailor tattoo; and Aimée Cornwell, a second-generation artist and rising star in the tattoo world, illustrates how tattooing is breaking down different artistic boundaries with her own form of fantasia.

It is estimated that about one in five of the UK population as a whole is tattooed and this figure rises to one in three for young adults. And yet, whilst the visibility of tattooing in contemporary culture may feel like something new, tattoos and tattoo art have always held a significant place in Britain’s history.

The exhibition explores this history in depth and shows that while the word tattoo may have come into the English language following Captain Cook’s voyage, this was not the start of the story of British tattooing. While showcasing the rich maritime heritage of tattoos, the exhibition also shows how people from all areas of society have always been tattooed. 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.

The exhibition will feature over 400 original artworks, photographs and historic artifacts. The Museum has collaborated with national organisations such as the Science Museum, Museum of London, Pitt Rivers Museum, Royal Museums Greenwich, British Library, Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology (University of Cambridge), the Palace of Westminster, Royal Cornwall Museum, Cornwall Records Office, and the National Archives in order to bring together the wealth of original and reproduction images, materials and objects on display.

Richard Doughty, Director of NMMC says,

The NMMC is delighted to have this opportunity to bring together the quality of the objects on show in this ground-breaking exhibition to the region and to have spearheaded this unique collaboration between national organisations, collectors, artists and leading academics. By championing exhibitions like Tattoo, the Museum is positioning itself at the forefront of challenging preconceptions about what we can and should be curating and collecting. We are creating a museum of the future for the next generation of visitors.

Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed has been curated for the National Maritime Museum Cornwall by Dr Matt Lodder, lecturer in Contemporary Art History and Director of American Studies at the University of Essex, supported by co-curators Stuart Slade and Derryth Ridge of National Maritime Museum Cornwall.

Dr Lodder says,

Whilst British and global museums have had a longstanding interest in Western tattooing, none have ever managed to fully combine serious academic research with access to the vast but hidden troves of tattoo ephemera kept closely guarded in private collections. In this exhibition, we have finally been able to match the most current and cutting-edge research on British tattoo history – which challenges all the most deeply-held perceptions about the practice, its origins, its extent, and its reception – with unparalleled access to the true custodians of tattooing’s history: the artists and their families who have cared for these objects and their stories over decades. Tattooing is a magical, romantic, exciting and often-misunderstood art-form, and we hope that our exhibition will communicate some of that magic to visitors.

Other collaborators include Dr Gemma Angel, (Research Fellow, Cornell University and University College London) who will provide an insight into the darker side of tattoo collections with a rare display of tattoing on preserved human skin from the Wellcome Collection’s medical skin collection, on loan to the Science Museum.

Exhibition partners:

Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed has been created with the support of many organisations and individuals.

Funders: Arts Council England | Garfield Weston Foundation Sir John Fisher Foundation | Heritage Lottery Fund |

Institutional Lenders: Science Museum Group | Wellcome Collection | Museum of London | National Maritime Museum, London | Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford | Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge | Cornwall Record Office | Royal Institution of Cornwall

Partners: Royal Museums Greenwich | University of Essex | Falmouth University | Thinksee 3D | Gorton Studios | A Pound of Flesh | Storylines | Royal British Legion | Battling On | FXU