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Fake bodies, real ink at Natural History Museum's new tattoo exhibit

A photo collage shows some of the images in a new exhibit on tattoos at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (L) Yonyuk Watchiya “Sua
A photo collage shows some of the images in a new exhibit on tattoos at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (L) Yonyuk Watchiya “Sua". Bangkok, Thailand, 2008-11, by Cedric Arnold. (C) Whang-Od Oggay (b. 1920). Philippines, 2011, by Jake Verzosa. (R) Full body tattoo for Tom Stephens by Bert Grimm. United States, mid-20th century. From the collection of Kari Barba/Outer Limits Tattoo and Museum.
Cedric Arnoald/Jake Verzosa/Bert Grimm
A photo collage shows some of the images in a new exhibit on tattoos at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (L) Yonyuk Watchiya “Sua
Detail of clay figurine (possibly Mayan). Mexico, Date unknown. Terracotta. From the collection of musée du quai Branly.
Claude Germain via NHMLA
A photo collage shows some of the images in a new exhibit on tattoos at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (L) Yonyuk Watchiya “Sua
Detail of tattooing kit. Rennell Island, Soloman Islands, early 20th century. Coconut palm tree nuts, plant fiber, wood, bone. Gift of Etienne de Ganay, Monique de Ganay, Régine de Ganay-Van den Broek d’Obrenan, Charles Van den Broek d’Obrenan from the collection of musée du quai Branly.
Claude Germain via NHMLA
A photo collage shows some of the images in a new exhibit on tattoos at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (L) Yonyuk Watchiya “Sua
Koruruor Parata (gable mask). Māori, New Zealand, 19th century. Carved wood, white pigment, pāua shell. From the collection of musée du quaiBranly.
Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado via NHMLA
A photo collage shows some of the images in a new exhibit on tattoos at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (L) Yonyuk Watchiya “Sua
Tattooing ink pad. Jerusalem, 17th to 18th century. Olive wood. Gift of Alix de Rothschild from the collection of musée du quai Branly.
Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado via NHMLA
A photo collage shows some of the images in a new exhibit on tattoos at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (L) Yonyuk Watchiya “Sua
Bert Grimm flash sheet (anchors and banners). Los Angeles, California, circa 1940s. Unknown media. Artist: Bert Grimm. From the collection of Kari Barba/Outer Limits Tattoo and Museum.
Deniz Durmus via NHMLA
A photo collage shows some of the images in a new exhibit on tattoos at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (L) Yonyuk Watchiya “Sua
Giant Squid Design (for a tattoo). USA, 1974. Ink and watercolor on paper. Artist: Ed Hardy (b.1945). From the collection of Don Ed Hardy.
Don Ed Hardy via NHMLA
A photo collage shows some of the images in a new exhibit on tattoos at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (L) Yonyuk Watchiya “Sua
Flash Design by Lucky Bastard for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
NHMLA
A photo collage shows some of the images in a new exhibit on tattoos at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (L) Yonyuk Watchiya “Sua
Detail of NHMLA Tattoo Parlor. Los Angeles, California, USA, 2017. Built for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Deniz Durmus via NHMLA
A photo collage shows some of the images in a new exhibit on tattoos at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (L) Yonyuk Watchiya “Sua
Tattoo parlor exhibit built for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Deniz Durmus via NHMLA


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Nearly a third of Americans have at least one tattoo, according to one Harris poll. Among the inked population, about 70 percent have two tattoos or more. I have three at present — and a gut feeling that I'll wind up with more. That's why I was excited to visit the new tattoo exhibition at the Natural History Museum of L.A. County.

Tattooed silicone torso. USA, 2016. Artist: Guy Aitchison. From the collection of musée du quai Branly.
Tattooed silicone torso. USA, 2016. Artist: Guy Aitchison. From the collection of musée du quai Branly.
John Weinstein via NHMLA

The exhibition delves into the rich, 5,000-year history of tattoo and features more than 125 images and objects, ranging from historical artifacts to intricate contemporary designs tattooed onto silicone models of the human body. 

"This exhibition is a chance for us to present a shared cultural story using some of our own collection," said Gretchen Baker, the Museum's Vice President of Exhibitions.

Baker gave me a sneak preview of Tattoo, which brings together a number of items from the Museum's permanent collection with new and borrowed objects, like the glass storefront sign from Bert Grimm's tattoo shop in Long Beach. It was the longest continually running tattoo shop in the United States. 

Bob Shaw plate glass window with flash designs (eagles, lions, and pin ups). Los Angeles, California, circa 1960s. Collection of Kari Barba/Outer Limits Tattoo and Museum.
Bob Shaw plate glass window with flash designs (eagles, lions, and pin ups). Los Angeles, California, circa 1960s. Collection of Kari Barba/Outer Limits Tattoo and Museum.
Deniz Durmus via NHMLA

Visitors can also get a real-life tattoo at a pop-up parlor within the museum.

Here are a few highlights from my interview with Gretchen Baker:

One of the tricky parts of mounting an exhibition about tattoos is that this art form is best seen on living, breathing bodies. Your workaround was to manufacture silicone body parts and have notable artists tattoo them. 

When Musée du quai Branly first conceived of the exhibition, they decided to commission 15 living artists to ink a new tattoo design onto these silicone forms. They worked with a prop house in Paris to develop a very special recipe of silicone and then worked with live models to cast arms, torsos, legs and different body parts.

Tattooed silicone arm. Long Beach, California, USA, 2017. Artist: Kari Barba.
Tattooed silicone arm. Long Beach, California, USA, 2017. Artist: Kari Barba.
Deniz Durmas via NHMLA

For example, there's the silicone arm on which Long Beach artist Kari Barba inked a sprawling octopus. What was it like for these artists to work with silicone instead of flesh?

They say that it's incredibly lifelike. Sometimes they felt like they were with a real life human being and would say things like, "Oh, excuse me, I'm just going to start here..." and then realize they were talking to a silicone arm.

Southern California plays a huge role in the evolution of modern tattoos. What role did Long Beach hold in that history?

Right about 1900, an amusement zone was built at the Long Beach Pike. And about 20 years after that, the Navy established Long Beach as a home for the Pacific Fleet. So you had this confluence of people coming to the Pike for entertainment and sailors coming home from service. Over time, the concentration of tattoo shops flowered there. Tattoo was illegal in New York and Boston at the time, so really the West Coast was where you would go to come and get inked. 

To hear more about how you can get a real, permanent tattoo at the Natural History Museum, click on the blue play button above. Below is a picture of one of my own tattoos, along with some of those shared by our listeners.

KPCC's Alex Cohen has a tattoo of a microphone, courtesy of Andrew Moore at Shogun Tattoo in Pasadena.
KPCC's Alex Cohen has a tattoo of a microphone, courtesy of Andrew Moore at Shogun Tattoo in Pasadena.
Courtesy of Andrew Moore

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