Tattooing gets the respect it deserves at ROMs Tattoos exhibition

TATTOOS: RITUAL. IDENTITY. OBSESSION. ART., at the Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queens Park), to September 5. $25, stu/srs $21.50, Friday.


TATTOOS: RITUAL. IDENTITY. OBSESSION. ART., at the Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queens Park), to September 5. $25, stu/srs $21.50, Friday after 4:30 pm $18/15. 416-586-8000. See listings.

In North America, the prevalence of tattoos in mainstream culture is still relatively new. And for those of us with tattoos, the choice to get inked is often deeply personal a portrait to commemorate a loved one, a line of script from a favourite song or poem. Even regretful pieces, done hastily and on a whim, can be markers of certain stages in life a birthday, a lover, a milestone year or, simply, youth.

But the art of tattooing is actually steeped in ancient tradition, spanning continents and cultures. Theres a complex bond between tattooists and people who wear their tattoos, and much can be learned by understanding these relationships. This is the focus of Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art., a new exhibition opening at the Royal Ontario Museum on April 2.

Tattoos are a bit of a departure for the ROM, Chris Darling, the ROMs senior curator of entomology, says.

Darling, who has worked at the ROM for 30 years, admits that most people are surprised to hear the museums hosting an exhibition on tattoos. But he says that body art from a cultural and archaeological sense is actually a useful way to study relationships between humans and their environments.

Tattoos are a visible and transient manifestation of these relationships, which are at least 5,000 years old, he says. This exhibition will allow visitors to explore both the ancient origins and cultural exchanges of tattooing.

The Tattoos exhibition actually comes to the ROM from France. Conceived by Anne & Julien, a team of curators and the founders of HEY! Modern Art & Pop Culture, the exhibition was shown at the Musee du quai Branly in Paris from 2014 to 2015.

In Toronto, the exhibition showcases over 200 objects related to tattooing, including ancient tools, prints, photographs, books, videos and more. Also on display are 13 silicone body parts inked by leading tattoo artists around the world, including New Jersey artist Paul Booth (who has done work for rock bands like Slipknot and Slayer), Japans Horiyoshi III (who specializes in full-body tattoos) and Polynesias Chime (whos known for traditional tribal tattoos).

The ROM makes an important addition to Tattoos that wasnt seen in France: the inclusion of indigenous North American cultures, which Darling says expands on the rich tattoo traditions of Borneo. Two evening events further delve into indigenous tattooing a screening of the documentary Tunniit: Retracing The Lines Of Inuit Tattoos on May 10 and a talk by anthropologist Lars Krutak on the cultural heritage of indigenous tattooing on June 14.

In Canada, where at least 20 per cent of us (including our prime minister) have been inked, we dont necessarily have a deep, cultural connection to body art. But the Tattoos exhibition brings to life an art form so beloved and respected by people around the world. At the very least, its a chance to be immersed in tattoo culture beyond the shop.

michelled@nowtoronto.com | @michdas

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