CU-Boulder Museum Exhibit Examines Art Of Tattoos

February 16, 1998

For many people, the thought of getting a tattoo conjures up images of sailors and leather-clad bikers adorning themselves with skulls, hearts and other symbols of machismo.

But, in fact, tattoos carry a rich cultural significance that dates back many centuries. And while still popular with the biker crowd today, tattoos now adorn a broader segment of the population.

A tattoo extravaganza, where people can show off their body art and the unadorned can get temporary henna tattoos, will kick off a new exhibit at the University of Colorado Museum. The event, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Feb. 26, also will feature entertainment by the Latin jazz fusion band Gordito, information about safety and the art of tattoos, bodypainting and free refreshments.

The opening is free and open to the public.

Titled “Tattoo,” the exhibit explores the diversity and cultural significance of tattoos from around the world. It will be on display this semester in the McKenna Room at the CU Museum, located south of the Mary Rippon Theatre near 15th Street and Broadway.

The student-oriented exhibit was developed by students in CU’s Museum Studies graduate program during a course they took last spring.

“We really wanted to focus on what students want to see,’’ said Margaret Ann, a student in the class. “Most students don’t know there’s a museum on campus, much less that there are exhibits here of interest to them.”

The current revival of tattooing borrows from traditional tattoo designs similar to those used by tribes in the South Pacific, in addition to Western art, the students discovered in their research.

“Anything you can have an image of has become a tattoo,” said museum studies student Karen Swain, who has seen the exhibit through to completion. Swain pointed to artist Don Ed Hardy’s surreal tattoo designs as among the more radical and influential in recent decades.

Tribal designs, with their abstract, organic, geometric shapes, also are popular and have been inspired by the traditional tattoo art of many cultures, Swain said. In Maori culture, tattoos were a sign of status and of virility or attractiveness. The Maori were tattooed on their faces and lips rather than keeping their tattoos hidden, which has been the Western practice until recently.

Now that tattoos are becoming more accepted in modern culture, they have reemerged as a sign of status, with some tattoo designs now costing hundreds of dollars, Swain said.

Traditional Maori facial tattoos were carved into the skin with a chisel made from a piece of sharpened bone. These practices sometimes led to infection and death, while modern tattoo practices are much safer, Swain said.

It is not known how far back the practice of tattooing goes, but the 5,300-year-old “Iceman” of Europe had tattoos over his joints and arthritic areas.

In some cultures, the placement of a tattoo is believed to have magical, protective powers, and the symbols are often chosen by a shaman, a priest or medicine man, Swain said. In the Maori culture, the facial tattoo was used as a person’s signature.

The introduction of Christian missionaries in the South Pacific led to a decline in body ornamentation because tattooing, along with other traditional practices, was discouraged and sometimes forbidden, Swain said.

A section of the exhibit also deals with involuntary tattooing, such as the tattooing of numbers on concentration camp victims during the Holocaust.

For more information about the exhibit and opening event, call the CU Museum at 492-3396.

Give FeedbackSee More Photos View Photo