Tattoos — college museum explores impact of Japanese style

MIDDLEBURY — Ever been secretly enticed by the art of tattooing? Do you want to know how it’s done and why anyone would want to spend thousands of dollars and months, if not years, of time under a needle to have elaborate and exotic tattoos cover much of their bodies?
A new exhibit at Middlebury College, “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World,” provides a glimpse into Japanese-style tattooing and how it has influenced the modern world. “Perseverance” opens June 10. Included as part of the two-month exhibit is a live demonstration of tattoo artist Nakona MacDonald working on large dragon on a client’s back. See this art in action on July 9 at the Mahaney Center for the Arts.
That’s bringing art to life!
What’s compelling about the exhibit is the intricacy of the art combined with “an exploration of the artistry of traditional Japanese sleeve and bodysuit tattoos along with its rich history and influence on modern tattoo practices.” Dr. Sarah Laursen, Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Curator of Asian Art at Middlebury College, brought the exhibit to the Middlebury College museum after seeing the show two years ago on a trip to Los Angeles.
“Both my brothers-in-law have full sleeve tattoos, so the show piqued my interest,” she explained. The morning she attended the show, there was a group forming at the door, and so she tacked on. Turns out both of the exhibit organizers, curator/tattoo artist Takahiro Kitamura and photographer/designer Kip Fulbeck, were in that group and she convinced the two to bring the show to Middlebury.
“I thought it would be something very interesting to bring to Vermont especially because we have such a tattooed population,” Laursen explained in a recent interview. “But it had to be in the summer. I can’t imagine putting up scantily clad people in the winter. That would be too jarring.”
The show displays a variety of photographs, including life-sized pictures of full-body tattoos and sculptured objects. Laursen hopes the show helps “to bridge the gap between modern tattoo art and traditional fine art.” A quick family-friendly warning: the exhibit is focused on the tattoo art, which means clothing is sometimes sparse or non-existent.
“Perseverance,” which debuted in the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, March 2014, and has been on national tour since, features the work of seven internationally acclaimed tattoo artists: Horitaka, Horitomo, Chris Horishiki Brand, Miyazo, Shige, Junii and Yokohama Horiken ? along with tattoo works by selected others. Along with biographies of each of these artists and explanations of their style, the exhibit explores the the origins of the art. If you’re learning Japanese (like some of the language school students) scan the QR code next to the image and listen to explanations of the works.
Notice how a lot of the artists’ names start with the prefix “hori?” That means “to carve” in Japanese, which acknowledges Japanese-style tattooing’s roots in ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints.
“Tattooing history in Japan is really close to their woodblock printing tradition,” Laursen, a Boston native, explained. “A lot of the images are drawn from woodblock printing. There are four main themes: flora and fauna, religion, folklore and legend, and warriors.”
Then there’s the more metaphorical connection of the cutting of the woodblock and cutting into the skin. Traditionally, tattoos in Japan were done with a needle or a cluster of needles on a bamboo stick pressed repeatedly into the skin, and then ink was wiped over those punctures ? much the same as woodblock printing where the wood is carved and ink wiped over the image. Another similarity is the gradation of color that has been used in woodblock prints and is popular in tattoos today.
“It’s more than just the subject matter, it’s also very much the style,” added Laursen, noting that most artists use tattoo machines nowadays.
As Japanese tattoos have moved into the mainstream, the artistry and legacy of Japanese tattooing remain both enigmatic and misunderstood. Even in modern Japan, the culture dismisses tattoo-art as underground.
“In Japan, tattooing is still very much taboo,” Laursen said, noting that there is still a close connection with the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia). “For example, you may not show tattoos in public bathrooms … and they can interfere with work. That’s why Japanese style tattoos often end around the neck collar, above the wrists and ankles; they can be covered if need be.”
Pushing back on these social stigmas, Japanese tattoo artists have pursued their passions, applied their skills and have risen to become internationally acclaimed artists. Through the endurance and dedication of these tattoo artists, Japanese tattooing has also persevered and is now internationally renowned for its artistry, lineage, historical symbolism and skill.
“Today we look at Japanese woodblock prints and we think about them as fine art, but when they were produced in the 18-19th centuries they weren’t something you would keep,” said Laursen. “We can think about tattoo in the same way. Initially, maybe it isn’t received as a high art, but maybe, over time, it will be.”
The Middlebury College Museum of Art, located in the Mahaney Center for the Arts on Route 30 on the southern edge of campus, is free and open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on the weekend from noon to 5 p.m. For more info call (802) 443–5007 or visit museum.middlebury.edu.

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