Tattoo exhibition makes its mark at Royal Ontario Museum

A new exhibition opening April 2 at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto features more than 200 objects from the past and present of the art of tattooing.

Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art opens this Saturday

You'd probably expect to come across displays of tattoos at a dank downtown parlour rather than at one of Canada's most prestigious cultural institutions.

But Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum has gone for the inky art in a big way, with its first ever exhibition exploring the world of tattoos.

The show, called Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art, opens this Saturday.

Tattoo exhibition at the ROM

8 years ago
Duration 1:05
Featured VideoRoyal Ontario Museum in Toronto hosts Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art exhibit

On display are more than 200 objects, including prints, posters, tools, documentary videos and — most provocatively — a specially commissioned series of 13 silicone body part reproductions showing some of the work of the world's most revered tattoo artists.

The exhibition drew record crowds in 2014-15 at the musée du Quai Branly in Paris. Its curators, the art duo known as Anne & Julien, also founded the magazine HEY! Modern Art & Pop Culture.

Combining art and scuplture

Stéphane Martin, president of that Paris institution, says he was "surprised by how serious tattoo artists can be," but impressed by their level of skill.

"I think they are technically great artists and extremely creative," he told CBC News.

He credits the curators with making it possible to really show off tattoos as an form that combines art and sculpture since tattoos are typically displayed in three dimensions on someone's body. 

Since it wouldn't be possible to display live humans as part of the show, Anne & Julien found someone who was creating movie props for zombie films, employing silicone to create limbs and torsos with the same density as human flesh.

Through their connections in the alternative culture scene, they had the credibility to convince several in-demand artists from around the world to create works on this material. Some of the them had to be shipped from as far away as Samoa.

The exhibition connects contemporary tattoo art with the ancient roots of this practice, which stretches back thousands of years, in places as diverse as Japan, Borneo, New Zealand, China, and the U.S.

It also shows how tattoos have been used to "cure, honour, marginalize, control, punish, enhance or demean the bearer," according to display materials.

First show for new ROM director

For the run at the ROM, the Ontario institute has added close to two dozen works from its own materials, including its Arctic, Egyptian and East Asian collections.

Wednesday's advance media preview was the second day on the job for the ROM's brand new Director and CEO Josh Basseches, previously at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

"This is a wonderful first show for me," he told CBC News. "If I'd had the opportunity to pick it I would have picked it because it's the type of show that does many of the things I think we at the ROM look forward to doing in the coming months and years: it looks at the question of the relationship between art and culture and really expanding the definition of what art is."

Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art will be on display until September 5.