The contingent history of making decorative marks on the human body has origins in a multitude of overlapping yet discrete practices that can be traced to as many cultures, geographies and periods as there are ways of interpreting the motivation behind acquiring them. Tattooing is a phenomena ingrained to the commitment of permanence as an act of visual self-identification, re-identification or forced-identification through elaborate manipulation of the skin. These gestures function as a product of cultural expression whether performed as a demonstration of personal ideals or the labeling of a body by others. As such the diaspora of tattoo culture continues to exist on the boundary of deviance and liberation; and within the continuous reinvention and appropriation of meaning both by the wearer and commenter.
The Latin and Greek noun stigma or the plural, Stigmata was consistently used in Medieval and Classical texts to denote “a mark made by a pointed instrument”, commonly as illustrated on the human skin. Stigmata was associated with the Roman Catholic Faith as an act of devotion through the suffering and wearing of religious symbols on the body. Tattoos of iconography were often acquired by pilgrims in Jerusalem or Bethlehem as tokens of commitment and mementos of visiting the holy land. Conversely, to wear a Stigma also implied the tentative practice of permanent body painting amongst tribes of Insular Celtic speaking populations of Ireland and Great Britain such as the Picts of Scotland. Known as painted warriors, male Picts were depicted in literature with suns, monsters, and snakes, while women with moons, stars, animals, and abstractions. However, the figure in A Young Daughter of the Pict of an unclothed woman garnished in various species of flowers was intentionally disguised with fictitious imagery as a metaphor that elevated tattooing in admiration of the arts. This miniature of a young Pict figure accredited to Jacques Le Moyne—Picti being the latin for “painted people”—could also suggest a comparison “intended to remind readers that early natives of the British Isles existed in a savage state similar to natives in the Americas” according to Lisa Ford from the Yale Center for British Art. This view was lost when translated as an engraving by Theodor De Bry in America I, his 1590 narrative and illustrated compilation of the first encounters with Native Americans in the New World. Sought to resemble the tattooed Eastern Algonquian peoples who inhabited what is now North Carolina, his reproduction served as an ethnographic comparison, “To shew that the Inhabitants of great Britain have bin in times past as savage as those of Virginia”. Western connotations of tattooing evolved from a conflicted history that continues to be suspended in the public opinion of the interpreter.
Ornamentation both on the body and in material culture had incriminating connotations in evolutionary history, mainly as evidence of cultural and biological degeneration. Prolific 19th century European figures in the natural sciences and evolutionary anthropology championed architect Adolf Loos‚ theories on the superiority of modern aesthetics, proving his condemnation of ornament on the body as savage, criminal and primitive through evidence justified by Ernst Haeckel‚s biogenetic principle of atavism. Decorative patterns expressed through and on the body were reserved, even admired for the primitive cultures, but never for the modern man for such acts of degeneracy were expected to evolve out and into extinction. This condemnation of ornamentation from Loo‚s manifesto, Ornament and Crime spread pervasively by the advocacy lens of Western of modernism, fundamentally influencing the deduction of embellishment in objects of industry and architecture. Contemporary favouritism for minimal and functional aesthetics, which stems through a Western design lineage, holds in its glass and steel surfaces an invisible elaborate ontology of a racist and eurocentric worldview. The Theory of Evolution went so far as to help Cesare Lombroso establish the discourse of criminal anthropology by studying the tattoos of Italian prison inmates. Under his interpretation a person‚s inherited biological features and the designs that adorned them were profiled as marks of criminal behavior within a latent kind.
Tattoo made its first appearance in the published accounts of British voyager Captain James Cook‚s 1769 encounter with the peoples of Tahiti, where both sexes were described to have painted their bodies in streaks of red and black, &ldquoTattow as it is called in their language, this is done by inlaying the Colour of black under their skins in such a manner as to be indelible.&rdquo Although the English word was adopted from the Polynesian root tatu or tatan, meaning to mark or strike, this particular observation was not the sole introduction responsible for popularizing an insurgence of tattooing as a non-indigenous practice throughout Europe. Tattoos obtained a marginalized existence but remained well established throughout the 16th and 17th century, simultaneous to encounters with irreversible body marking by European explorers throughout the Americas, Asia, and Africa.
Subjected to the fringe of societies, tattoos gained a nomadic status, traveling along the peripheral on the moving bodies of transported convicts, captives, performers, soldiers and sailors. Native Prince Jeoly from the Philippine Island of Meangis was taken captive in 1691 and put on show as a sensation for the English. French shipwreck survivor Jean Baptiste Cabris had fully acculturated with the people of Nuku Hiva through language, marriage, and the acquiring of bold full body geometric tattoos. Brought back years later in 1804, he became a prodigy in the theaters of Paris and Moscow. Inspired by the reception of such accounts, abduction stories were exaggerated or made up for spectacle thanks to the commercial genius of showman P.T. Burnman, who brought tattooed freaks from fairgrounds to the side show as circus performers. The 388 Burmese style animal designs that toured on the ambiguously exotic Captain Constantenus, along with those that covered tattooed ladies Irene Woodward and Nora Hildebrant, successfully brought tattoo imagery into western public view. Eventually attractions of tattooed men and women could be found in dime museums of every major American city.
Tattoos continued to gain popular acceptance as design disseminated into neighbourhoods with the homecoming of the army and navy. A bundle of needles dipped in a solution of India Ink with laundry bluing or gunpowder was to trace simple designs found on the limbs of French and Prussian soldiers as early as the Napoleonic wars. Amature black, blue and occasionally vermilion line drawings of initials, anchors, hearts and names of loved ones were frequent amongst early American seafarers, who wore inked initials on their body on the chance it became a corpse. Similar motifs with the addition of majestic eagles and flags were documented during American Spanish War in the sketchbook of tattooist C.H. Fellowes. Sailors born after the declaration of Independence acquired tattoos of liberty caps, the coat of arms, clusters of stars, and spoken mottos to flaunt revolutionary symbolism. These stereotypical pin-pricked naudic and patriotic motifs propagated a traditional folk style of tattooing through American and British seaports, and circuses that developed into what is iconically known as ‘flash’.
Professional tattoo artists like Martin Hildebrandt in the New York Bowery and Sutherland MacDonlad in London were amongst the first to help establish an official public title for tattooing before the turn of the 20th century. Female tattoo artist followed with Maud Wagner of the United States and Jessie Knight of Britain. The initial bloom of the tattooing industry trained many talented successors who helped establish the flash aesthetic through the heavy rotation and imitation of a similar repository of imagery. Sheets of finely draughted stencils of popular designs were shared and then sold to help meet growing mainstream demand. Framed sheets of flash covered the walls and window displays of tattoo parlors with designs in color and greyscale that could be recreated anywhere on the body. Flash was everywhere, and the improved techniques brought on by the invention of the electric tattoo gun by New York artist Samuel F. O‚Reilly in 1890 only made its presence more visible.
Emerged out from the utility of identifying a body, tattoos came into vogue as souvenirs of recorded travels abroad among fashionable British aristocratic society. Foreign tattoos were admired for representing a moment of cultural exchange and collected on the body from various origins, which subsequently introduced new imagery of exotic creatures and women to flash. British naval officers were tattooed with by Japanese Masters since the 1880s, a trend that did not escape American GIs. Tattooed by the same master as his father, King George V received a red and blue dragon from Hori Chyo in Tokyo and another dragon in Kyoto. The influence of Irezumi, a Japanese tattoo style that was synonymous with ukiyo-e woodblock prints, had a ricocheting impact on Western tattooing. A sensation during the Edo Period, full body irezumi of mythological characters in Japanese art and literature was then popularized by firemen, messengers and Yakuza gang members. Irezumi artistry was admired from afar by Honolulu based tattoo artist Sailor Jerry who interpreted their techniques in subtle tonal shading, large scale designs, and unique body placement to reinvent classic American subjects. A student of Jerry‚s, Don Ed Hardy‚s apprenticeship with Horiyoshi III in Japan made his practice into a form of fine art on the body, that epitomized the quintessential tattoo stereotype as a product of mixing international styles rather than a single design.
The mobility of tattoos, presented upon transient bodies, has allowed the practice space to evolve across a global audience. Although traditional designs get detached from the culture that was inscribed to the body, the diffusion of styles and techniques as propagated by magazines and social media is what defines tattoos in contemporary fashion. Sometimes styles resurfaces to give people the ability to validate and express ethnic identities, such as the resurgence of Kalinga ethnic batok tattooing in reinventing 21st century American Filipino diasporic identity. Other times getting tattooed becomes an act of personal possession. Voluntary prison tattoos are acquired by inmates to take back control of one‚s body in situations that sought to control it. Hardy‚s Female clientele grew by 55% between the 60s and 90s, following the liberation of women‚s rights in America with the birth control pill in 1961 and the legalization of abortion a decade later. Now breast cancer survivors confidently decorate their victory with photo reconstructive and ornamental tattoos as supported by charities like Pink Ink. Tattoos continue to be empowered by the wearer and as Figures like Grace Neutral, a stick and poke artist herself, have come to represent extreme body modification as an alternative form of beauty inspired by other worlds. 2017
No stranger to the arena of exhibiting functional objects within a gallery, English designer Jasper Morrison renegotiates the subtleties of Super Normal design with his first solo show in the United States, Corks. Spoiled by the title itself, Paul Kasmin (New York) presents a new series of furniture by the prolific designer, made homogeneously of said material. Conceived in limited edition for his inauguration with the gallery, the collection is complete with stools, arm chairs, tables, shelves, and a fireplace mantel. It occupies the ground level space at the corner of 10th Ave and West 27th Street, and is on view from May 9th through June 28th, 2019.
Precisely milled shapes that are suggestive of function are staged across the gallery, loosely scattered in a tight space. Nostalgic of playroom toys that are not afraid to fall or be stacked. Their sturdy geometries invite play much like playroom foam building blocks, but rather enlarged as designer furniture, luring those walking through the Chelsea gallery district.
Some pieces are gathered in clusters and ask you to sit on them. Chairs pair off, and face one another in arrangements that reflect a domestic or hospitality space, suggesting moments of conversation. In all occurrences they are accompanied by stools of various extruded and booleaned circumferences. Ambiguous forms of seating that could also perform as table tops. Or low tables, that hypothetically could behave as seating or even be stood upon. Their archetypes are blurred, each piece cloaked in its entirety by the same durable surface. Morrison’s cork furniture almost blends into the the bare, wood-panelled floor of a similar warm beige, if not for abruptions by the pine green and white horizon lines of the walls.
An assortment of tables and chairs are deliberately singled out, as if to artificially elevate them from being experienced functionally, and reach for greater hierarchical grounds. They stand in formation, single-file and evenly spaced on low pedestals that partially perimeter the room.
The same items in the collection reappear sporadically between these two exhibition contexts, asking to be distinguished for embracing a conceptual duality. To be recognized in part as Kasmin’s continued representation of a particular strain of work at the intersection of art and design. What merits design expressed as a gallery exhibition and what defines the same objects displayed in a showroom?
The objects in Corks are already boundary pushing for being exceptionally ordinary or Super Normal. In 2006, Morrison along with Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa proposed to the world a collection of designed objects as ‘Super Normal’. Elaborated through manifesto, print publication, and a traveling exhibition, the two curated a selection of anonymously designed things that they noticed as ‘Sensations of the Ordinary’ (subtitle of the aforementioned book). Overlooked everyday items, domestic and interior in nature, these objects were brought towards eye level by way of the same strategy, on white pedestals.
The collection is synonymous with his expansive body of work, in that each item‚s comfortable geometries and proportions feel as if they were achieved effortlessly. Quiet yet considered. Morrison‚s aesthetic sensibility for crafting industrial products is at all at once distinctive for its normality and nurances. As an unanimous family of furniture conceived in humble cork. As design that upcycles unselected wine bottle corks and renders them as bodies of terrazzo. Finally, as design that reimagines materiality and commemorates it.
The paradoxical premise that presents Corks is pushing it in terms of what validates work as boundary pushing at the intersection of art and design, that is, besides the mere presence of a gallery.
Can design only be radical by striving towards categorization that is akin to art? 2019
ALICE GONG XIAOWEN