For centuries the tattoo has taken on countless forms and survived many cycles of cultural evolution. This tradition continues in American culture, where the tattoo has endured a unique evolution. In examination of this metamorphosis, the exhibition follows the cultural development of the American tattoo; from its symbolic and aesthetic origins, to mainstream cultural disdain, to the tentative acceptance of tattooing in today’s society. This exhibition poses the questions: What influenced these changes? How has the tattoo progressed and where will this evolution lead next?
ORIGINS & INFLUENCES
The American Tattoo originated in the 1700s when Captain James Cook encountered tattooed natives in the Pacific and sailors brought Polynesian influenced tattoos to America. A domestic style evolved in the freak show and circus world, where performers used tattoos to cash in on a puritan nations fascination for (and fear of) the primitive. When American servicemen embraced the tattoo as a form of self-expression, a patriotic style evolved and the mainstreaming of the tattoo in America commenced.
As tattoos evolved to represent counterculture rebellion and group affiliation, criminal organizations began using tattoos as a means of leaving their mark. In prisons and on the streets, tattoos are used to establish allegiances, becoming a visual marker to recognize friend from foe.
Recently, the tattoo has developed from a mark of allegiance to a group to a more versatile form of expression. New styles have evolved from traditional ones to incorporate new influences. As the evolution of the American tattoo has transgressed from its origins in the fascination of the primitive, media portrayal of the tattoo has evolved to embrace its popularity.
As the tattoo as increased in popularity and acceptance in America, the expanse of individuals receiving tattoos, the styles of tattoos and the purpose for getting them, has evolved. Whether medical related or as a form of body modification, new trends in tattoos incorporate a variety of procedures that are continually evolving.
This exhibition was originally developed by the NIU Museum Studies 2010 Curatorial Practice Class as a hands-on curatorial experience for the students and exemplifies the quality of work from the NIU Museum Studies Program.