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.
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.
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.
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.