The Musée Quai Branly in Paris is known for its globe-spanning exhibitions and ability to connect physically and temporally disparate cultures with our contemporary moment. No where is this better on display than their latest exhibition “Tattooists and Tattooed.” The exhibition returns to the sources of tattooing and tells the story of the practice’s transformation into a permanent, globalized phenomenon. Although we might take for granted that tattoos are commonplace in the Western world, this exhibition reveals the interesting cultural interplay that preceded their current wide-spread acceptance.
In so-called “primitive” societies from the Oriental, African and Oceanian worlds, tattooing has a social, religious and mystical role. In many cases, tattoos would accompany their subjects during their rites of passage, eventually branding them as full members of the community. Conversely, in the West, tattoos were long seen as a mark of infamy, criminality or as a plain circus attraction. Later, they became a mark of identity for urban “tribes” of all kinds, reflecting their original purpose as an identifying symbol.