The musée du Quai Branly, my favourite Paris museum, has recently opened a fascinating show called Tattooists, tattooed. I haven't stopped telling people they should go and see it if they happen to be in town in the coming months. In town and french speaking preferably because a large part of the information in the gallery spaces hasn't been translated in english.
I was expecting the usual about tattoos: the criminals, the freak shows, the Māori warriors, the virtuosity of contemporary tattoo artists. I certainly found all of that in the show. I wasn't however expecting to be shocked by the way tattoos were used to mark women.
In the 1920s, thousands of Armenian girls and women managed to escape the Genocide of their people by feeling to Syria. They were kept in slavery and forced into prostitution. In order to identify them and prevent their escape, their pimps tattooed their face and arms.
The girl in the photo above had just been rescued from a Turkish house and was cared for by the Y.W.C.A. workers at Aleppo.
The significance of the tattoos worn by Ainu women couldn't be more different. In the Ainu culture of Northern Japan, only women tattooed and were tattooed. The traditional practice was a prerequisite to marriage and to the afterlife. Mouth tattoos were started at a young age with a small spot on the upper lip. The design would gradually increase in size over the years.
The exhibition looks at tattoo through ages and cultures. It also demonstrates that tattooing is an art in constant evolution that traverses all continents, even if its essence, acceptance and purpose differ from one culture to another. While in societies from the Oriental, African and Oceanian worlds, tattooing had a social, religious and mystical role, the West saw it as a mark of shame. In the past, only criminals, prostitutes, sailors, circus freaks and other marginals would wear one. Or many.
The exhibition displays 300 historical and contemporary artefacts, including photographs, prints, paintings, posters, short films, tribal masks, books, clothing, tattoo-making instruments (such as Thomas Edison's perforating pen) and even mummified samples of body parts and preserved tattooed human skin.
I was obviously drawn to the displays showing how tattoo was used by 'the underworld' to frighten, claim their belonging to a certain gang, parade their crimes or share secret codes.
Tattoos were of great interest to European criminologists during the late 19th century. Many scholars believed that the presence of tattooing in European culture represented worrying signs of atavism, criminal proclivity, or dangerous 'degeneration' within their populations (via.) French criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne, however, believed that the choice of tattoo offered an insight into the criminal mind. He catalogued thousands of images according to type and body location. In 1881 he published Tatouages: Étude Anthropologique Et Médico-légale, or Anthropological and Forensic Tattoos.
Lacassagne's archives offer an interesting parallel to the drawings and photos detailing Russian criminal tattoos.
Sergei Vasiliev worked both as a photographer for a newspaper in Chelyabinsk and as a prison warden when he encountered the work of Danzig Baldaev, the son of an ethnographer who was arrested as an "enemy of the people". Baldaev spent over 30 years working in the Soviet penal system. He recorded the horrors of the Gulag in dozens of drawings but he gained fame for his meticulous documentation of the tattoos etched on the skin of the inmates.
Nowadays, you don't have to be a criminal to wear tattoos. But the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gangs of Los Angeles and Central America wear their symbols and languages on their faces.
With the help of a priest working on the rehabilitation of gang members, Isabel Muñoz gained access to a prison in El Salvador where she made stunning portraits of the men.
More images from the show:
Marc Garanger's 1960 portrait of a woman whose village was destroyed during Algeria's war of independence from France. She clearly wasn't impressed by the French photographer.
You probably don't want to see this video but here is the Lizardman, i discovered its existence in one of the videos screened at the museum:
Tattooists, tattooed is at the musée du Quai Branly until 18 october 2015. It was curated by Anne & Julien, founders of the magazine "Hey! Modern Art and Pop Culture," in collaboration with tattoo artist Tin-Tin, anthropologist Sébastien Galliot and journalist Pascal Bagot.
Related: Russian Criminal Tattoo portraits.