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Even in the flashy and permissive world of contemporary American culture, tattoos continue to shock. The inference of pain and the legacy of the practice’s history in identity politics still trigger judgments that have little to do with aesthetics. Nevertheless, the visual language of tattooing has gradually integrated itself into the American sense of style. The tattoo is finally being evaluated as art.

Inserting pigment under the skin to form designs stretches back to the Bronze Age, with roots in Europe, Egypt, Japan and the islands of the South Pacific. Tattoos are thought to have been fairly common among Roman soldiers, convicts, slaves and gladiators, but became illegal around the fourth century. Emperor Constantine outlawed the process to keep his subjects from disfiguring their faces, which he saw as a reflection of the face of God. It was the first of many taboos to saddle the tradition.

Still, the practice thrived in other parts of the world. When naval trade and exploration began to reintroduce the art form to Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the tattoo again suffered scorn and ridicule. The designs on “savages” were believed to be evidence of their “primitive” nature, while tattoos on sailors signaled their lower class. In both cases, the tattoo served as an emblem of outsider status.

Exclusion from one group, however, can suggest inclusion in another. Groups living outside the mainstream of society began to see the tattoo as a mark of exclusivity and rebellion. The indelible nature of the ink also made it a symbol of commitment. Thus, different tattooing styles developed among disparate communities.



When sailors returned home from World War II with images on their forearms, biceps, and chests, a grateful nation was unwilling to hold its heroes up to contempt. It was a tipping point in America’s assessment of tattoos. Subsequent adoption of the tattoo by rock ‘n roll, punk, and other youth-driven movements further solidified the medium. Today’s youngest generation no longer finds anything unsavory about adorning their skin with the works of tattoo artists that they admire. The process has even made it onto national television, with shows such as Miami Ink and LA Ink redefining the public image of the tattoo.

In working on this project with photographer, Amanda Grandfield, I have been lucky to interview a wide range of people about their tattoos. Their passions and personal histories are deeply embedded in these images and the mastery of the medium evident in the best tattoos is astonishing. I found tattooed women’s sense of empowerment from redefining traditional beauty particularly moving.

Sullivan Goss is proud to offer an exhibition of photographs, paintings, and live tattooed models in which the tattoo is examined as a fine art medium for the twenty-first century. Certainly, the extraordinary skill exhibited in these figurative paintings argues forcefully for the importance of the cultural phenomenon. When the shock subsides, the beauty comes forward.

- Jeremy Tessmer, Gallery Director

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