Drawn Skin

The ultimate form of self expression, body art, whether it be through altering the texture of skin, staining the skin with dyes, or piercing the skin is seen across the world.  This shared practice of altering our bodies traces back eight thousand to possibly tens of thousands of years. While the contemporary origins and traditions of body art vary greatly from location to location, as populations migrate across the globe they carry those stories and iconography with them, forever a connection to their past.

Perhaps the modern European fascination of artistic, voluntary tattooing can best be traced to the 18 century. The word tattoo is an anglophonic modification of tatao, a Polynesian word used on the island of Tahiti where Captain Cook landed on his first voyage in 1768. While inking ones skin was not unknown to the European world, the extensive drawings of the heavily tattooed indigenous peoples by Sydney Parkinson, the artist on voyage, as well as the stories of tattooing by the natural historian Sir Joseph Banks who was also on the voyage. Additionally, may of the crew, and the crews of subsequent voyages, received tattoos from the indigenous populations. What subsequently developed was an explosion of body art in Victorian England (read more about that here). During this time Sutherland Macdonald became the first professional tattooist in England and patented the electric tattooing machine, tattooing commoners and royals alike. It is also rumored that Queen Victoria had a tattoo (a bear fighting a python). Popularity of body art ebbed and flowed with time as did its perceived association with criminality. While the association between criminality and body art is overblown, the most thorough survey of body art trends of the Victorian era, and perhaps any time period, is available through the Digital Panopticon Project which digitized and datamined criminal records of 90,000 incarcerated persons from the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales between to better understand crime and criminal justice of the past.

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This show will exhibit at Massachusetts General Hospital and then rotate to additional Peoples’ heART exhibit spaces at MGB hospitals and community clinics.