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Tattoo exhibition spotlights Southern Californian artists at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
People attend the media preview of the travelling exhibition "Tattoo" at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, California on November 15, 2017, which explores more than 5,000 years of history, culture and art connected to ink with displays of silicone body parts, hand-drawn art, photographs, videos and the technology from tools of the trade. The exhibition was created and developed by the Musee du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac in Paris, and concludes in Los Angeles following earlier exhibitions in Toronto and Chicago. FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County opened the traveling exhibition Tattoo to Southern California from November 19, 2017 to April 15, 2018. Created and developed by the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris, the NHMLA presentation of Tattoo concludes an international tour at stops including Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum and Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. Tattoo explores more than 5,000 years of history, culture, and art connected to ink through specially commissioned, tattooed silicone forms; hand-drawn art; videos of tattoo ceremonies; interview footage of luminary practitioners; and the technology and tools of the trade—all while also spotlighting the vibrant tattoo scene in L.A.

While tattooing tools may vary from artist to artist, tattooists have employed a common method: puncture the skin and deposit pigment. The exhibition explores the variety of tools used around the world and throughout the history of tattooing including knives and needles made of citrus thorns, cactus spines, and metal. Historic highlights include a 250-year-old inkpad that belonged to a family in Jerusalem who used candle soot mixed with wine to tattoo pilgrims on their journey and an electric stencil pen from Thomas Edison, which inspired the first electric tattoo machine.

Different from its iterations at other museums, the exhibit features 3,000 square feet of new content dedicated to Los Angeles, a creative capital for tattoo culture, plus historic pieces from NHMLA’s anthropology collection. A working tattoo parlor within the exhibition features live demonstrations and special times for tattoo appointments in which visitors can get permanently inked by L.A.-based artists (advance reservation required). Collections at NHMLA and the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum—butterflies, saber-toothed cats, tigers, mammoths, and gems—inspired many of the onsite parlor’s designs.

“As a Museum of, for, and with L.A., and committed to exploring the region’s nature and culture, we are honored to present Tattoo in Southern California. This is the birthplace of several pivotal tattoo movements, including the Long Beach Pike scene and the black-and-gray style,” commented Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, President and Director of NHMLA. “Tattoo provides a special opportunity for our community to explore an often-misunderstood art form and shed light on the history and traditions of tattooing around the world and right here at home.”

NHMLA visitors will discover the West Coast's pivotal role in both the American traditional style of tattooing and in tattoo today, and see the contributions of dozens of L.A. artists—past and present. There are “flash” sheets (designs printed on paper or cardboard, and often hung in tattoo shops) featuring work from legendary tattooists Sailor Jerry and Bob Shaw, who expanded the color palette of traditional style through their proprietary ink formulas. Visitors will see flash by Southern California native Freddy Negrete, whose tattoos contributed to a revolution in three-dimensional shading.

The exhibition highlights the dynamic work and importance of female tattooists. A video of Jesse Knight—an Englishwoman trained to tattoo by her father and famous for her freehand ability (tattooing without pre-drawn designs)—is a part of the content. There is also work from Southern California’s Nell Bowen and Dainty Dottie—and a newly-commissioned silicone arm form tattooed by Kari Barba, a pioneering tattooist and the owner of Outer Limits Tattoo and Museum in Long Beach (the site of the longest running tattoo studio in the United States).

NHMLA’s presentation of the exhibition features an original two-part video installation on tattoo in Los Angeles. The first, on the history of tattoo at the Long Beach Pike, details the unprecedented quality and quantity of the traditional-style tattooists who congregated at the Pike in the early and mid-1900s. During that period, Long Beach boasted the largest concentration of tattoo parlors in the U.S., including Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo, which was home to some of the most influential artists in the 20th century. The video also feature interviews with living artists Barba, Rick Walters, and Mark Mahoney—all of whom also worked, or work, at the Pike—providing a continuum in the Southern Californian tattoo narrative.

The second video in the series traces the evolution of black-and-gray style tattoo: from early Pachuco and Chicano tattoos, to the practice of single-needle tattoo in Western correctional facilities and the streets of East Los Angeles, to global phenomenon. It features interviews with early practitioners and influencers like Negrete and Jack Rudy, as well as the next generations: Big Gus, Isaiah Negrete, Steve Soto, Carlos Torres, and Franco Vescovi. Within the exhibition, historical photographs, sketches, and artifacts accompany the video.

“Tattoo illustrates the extensive history of tattooing, from an expression of group identity to one of individuality,” Gretchen Baker, Vice President, Exhibitions remarked. “As we began to explore the history of tattooing in Southern California and how Tattoo would manifest itself at NHMLA, we connected with local tattoo artists, whose willingness to participate has been incredible, from actively putting their skills on display in the parlor, to revealing their personal stories, to lending artifacts from their shops. We are thrilled to be able to include artifacts from the NHMLA collection that will further the conversation around tattoos and the space they occupy within today’s world. It is our goal to show tattoos as an art form and demonstrate how this art form has manifested itself in cultures around the world.”

The exhibition closes with more paintings and silicone forms by some of the most exciting artists tattooing today, as well as a look at tattoo's evolution off the skin into a style that influences contemporary culture. The final wall of the gallery features an homage to tattoo in the form of a mural by world-renowned graffiti and tattoo artist (and native Angeleno), Big Sleeps.

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