Body politics | British Tattoo Art: Reclaiming the Narrative, National Maritime Museum Cornwall
You might be thinking that the National Maritime Museum Cornwall (NMMC) has already held a critically acclaimed exhibition celebrating British tattoo art – and you would be right.
British Tattoo Art: Reclaiming the Narrative (until 16 April) is a response to its 2017 predecessor. It is a bold move by the NMMC to create a dialogue with its own curatorial past to redress imbalances in representation for Black people and people of colour.
I visited Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed in 2017. An issue being discussed then was the discrimination of working-class writers, which was replicated across the arts. As British Tattoo Art Revealed toured over three years, the cultural landscape changed. The brutal murder of George Floyd in the US in 2020 and the rise of Black Lives Matter drove many towards self-reflection in response to the wrongs of institutional racism.
After touring nationally to venues, including M Shed in Bristol, some of the key artworks from British Tattoo Art Revealed are back at the NMMC and are being shown alongside works commissioned for Reclaiming the Narrative. Both British Tattoo Art Revealed and Reclaiming the Narrative are being displayed in the museum’s temporary exhibition space, the Bridge, which is next to the Learning Centre. So, families wishing to heed a content warning for nudity in either show have no other route.
This exhibition occupies a much smaller space than its predecessor, but it is accessible with lifts from the ground floor. There is excellent information on the website to allow for planning beforehand for different access and neurodivergent needs. But the interpretation panels would be difficult to read by those in a wheelchair.
Reclaiming the Narrative presents highlights from the original exhibition as a series of display boards sequencing the chronological history of tattoo in Britain from “deep history” (Tudor) through to the modern era. There is one interactive display, but it was blank when I visited. However, Lal Hardy’s studio, pride of the original exhibition, provides a wonderful opportunity for children to play at inking tattoos.
The updated material for Reclaiming the Narrative is buried in the exhibition, opposite the wall with the 100 pale, male tattooed arms from 2017. I wonder if this was the right place for this important reflective piece. It fits in visual terms, but is an interruption to the chronological unfurling of tattoo history. If visitors had read this new material earlier, they may have looked at the original exhibition displays with the NMMC’s benefit of hindsight. That said, the new displays are excellent.
With work by 14 artists on sculptured body parts, the new displays redress the imbalance of tattoo artists from the museum’s 2017 exhibition. The sequencing of responses on three boards is well thought out. The first is from tattoo artist Charissa Gregson, aka Rizza Boo – the lead artist who worked with guest curator Alice Snape (see box below) – who references the cultural context of institutional racism and the omission of Black tattooists from the original show.
The second is by the original exhibition’s guest curator, Matt Lodder, a senior lecturer in art history and theory and director of American Studies at the University of Essex who acknowledges the previous omission of Black tattoo artists into the history of the subject.
Focus on: exhibition development
Curator Alice Snape and I have known each other for several years. When we talked about what needed be addressed in British Tattoo Art Revealed, it became evident that it is not possible to address a lack of diversity and inclusion of Black tattooists and people of colour with one piece by one person. We would have had twice as many tattoo artists involved if possible, but we’ve ensured a good mix of styles.
For my own piece, I wanted to deliver a tattoo with power and beauty that was striking from a distance, but with detail that held meaning. I like making playful tattoos, but for this I had to adapt my ideas.
Tattooing on silicone is very different to skin. The texture is slippery and difficult to apply stencils to, but I developed a good technique.
I decided the perfect canvas for my piece would be a woman’s torso, and I requested a deeper skin tone. There are still limitations in tattoo practice skins, and one critique is that deeper tones are still not very dark. I wanted to celebrate the Black femme form. My work nods to traditional tattoo imagery, has odes to intersectional feminists and the back piece conveys my love for sci-fi and Afrofuturism. When people see the show, I hope they are struck by the skill and beauty on display – many hours went into crafting each piece.
I chose the title Reclaiming the Narrative because of the importance of storytelling. I hope that in future there is less need for additions like this, and that Black artists and tattooists and those of colour would be included from the inception.
Charissa Gregson aka Rizza Boo, Shadow Work Tattoos
The third is from the NMMC’s director, Richard Doughty, who says the venue needs to do better, and will take action to include different voices in future. This feels appropriate – apologetic, reflective and dynamic.
The inclusion of post-1990s tattooing trends is a welcome addition, making it relevant to more visitors – according to the NMMC, one in five adults in Britain has a tattoo, and one in three of young people.
As a person with a tattoo – a memorial to my father etched in New York in 1997 shortly after he died – I looked for myself in the exhibition. I was not alone.
I heard snippets of tattoo stories, people taking inspiration for the next inking, or projecting themselves onto displays. And this strikes me as being where the exhibition grabs the attention of visitors, at the level of museum object. But it is also the part where I felt that the NMMC could have explored the practice of tattooing more deeply.
At the work-of-art level, there is definitely more that the museum could have examined. There are examples of work by renowned tattoo artists of the early to mid 1900s, father and daughter Sailor and Jessie Knight, including their stereotypical depiction of Indigenous Americans.
More disturbing is the life-sized model of the Great Omi, Horace Ridler, who was tattooed all over in zebra-like black stripes (he was white) to perform as a self-styled monster in shows during the 1930s-40s. He added “tribal” adornments to enhance his image as a savage. Today, we recognise this stereotype as cultural appropriation.
Disappointingly, these are not in the new part of the exhibition. Reclaiming the Narrative only includes Black artists and those of colour post-1990s. It doesn’t, in my view, deal with aspects of institutional racism in the material that was shown in 2017.
The body politic
As Doughty pledges, and as the American activist Maya Angelou is often quoted: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”
In this context, the NMMC has created a map for the museum sector in revisiting its original British Tattoo Art Revealed exhibition and must be praised for this. It has acted on “knowing better” and created an exhibition well worth visiting. However, in examining the tattoos at an object level, my feeling is that it can do even better.