"The Tattoo Show," July 7-Aug. 12, 2001, at Modern Art Inc., 73 Redchurch Street, London E2 7DJ England.
"The modern man who tattoos himself is a criminal or a degenerate," wrote Viennese architect Adolf Loos in 1908. That dyspeptic view of the tattoo carries over to the present moment -- though in today's sanitized decadence, marking oneself as an outlaw has considerable social and market cachet. These days the tattoo sits firmly in (or on) the bosom of hip celebrity culture, sported by the likes of Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and supermodel Linda Evangelista.
What's more, the tattoo remains a defiantly individualist brand in the face of global mass consumerism. So it's no wonder that the London gallery Modern Art Inc. was able to enlist a solid range of contemporary talent for its "Tattoo Show." Tracey Emin, Wolfgang Tillmans, Matt Collishaw, Fiona Banner, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Mario Testino, Michael Craig-Martin, Gavin Turk and 31 other artists are crowded into the gallery's small storefront space in the East End.
It was Gavin Turk who dug up the Loos quote, part of Loos' famous proto-Minimalist essay that damned ornamentation in general. Noting that 80 precent of prisoners were tattooed, he said, "If a tattooed person dies at liberty, it is only that he died a few years before he committed a murder." In a pair of works, titled Trebuchet MS and Saxon, Turk designs a cruciform tattoo using Loos's name itself -- Loos identified the cross as the first ornamental design, and a phallic one at that. In Turk's work, "Adolf" forms the horizontal, female bar, and "Loos" the upright, male member, with the crossing occurring through the "o." For £1,250, one may buy a tattoo and brand oneself a lover of contemporary art.
Tim Noble and Sue Webster pick up on the "bad-ass" personality associated with a tattoo in their painting, Don't Fuck with the Blackheads, a self-portrait of the couple, with tattoos, of course. Self-consciously tough, their poses suggest an overdetermination of the superficial impression of strength that tattoo owners hope to create. Needless to say, this tough façade is necessitated by an actual circumstance of weakness. What could be more pathetic, for instance, than a condemned man.
This idea of the pathetically degenerate resonates in Edward Lipski's sculpture, Tattoo, which resembles a limbless and headless torso covered all over with tattoos. Lying on what would be its face, and hunched as if cringing with humility, the thing's skin is covered with an absorbing network of words and images. Its vulnerability takes the work into the world of the nightmare more than anything else.
Matt Collishaw, one of the notable Bad Boys of Brit art, takes victimization to a high-gloss level with Dead Arm, a photograph of a severed arm in the woods brightly displayed on a lightbox. On the fingers the letters "K-A-T-E" are tattooed, personalizing this rather horrifying bit of gore. But the Conceptual Art polish of Collishaw's presentation of violence suggests a more equivocal position in regard to the esthetics of media sensationalism.
For their owners, tattoos are invariably markers of pivotal moments -- that wild night, or the decision to join the army. Who better to meditate on these instants than Tracey Emin, queen of self-obsession? Her piece, Tattoo, is made up of photographs of her own tattoos and a hand-written text telling of her regret at their imposing reminders. Think what you will about Tracey, but the idea of shifting identities (we are the same person as we were in years past, but somehow not the same) was an intriguing addition to the exhibition.
The movement of tattoos up the social scale is pointedly drawn out in Chanel, fashion photographer Mario Testino's elegantly blurred image of a model's calves imprinted with "C-H-A" down one and "N-E-L" down the other. The king of catwalk photography knows that what we wear and where we shop is who we are. Issues of corporate branding also infect Gunilla Klingberg's Spar Loop, a video kaleidoscope of patterned supermarket logos.
Last year, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London took color photos of tattoos on over 1,500 people, a collection that is now part of the museum's encyclopedic holdings. Judging by the show at Modern Art Inc., the V& A missed a few.
PERNILLA HOLMES is a freelance critic based in London.