Exhibit shows marine history with help of tattoo

Sunday, June 16, 2002

LONDON -- "Skin is a living canvas," says tattoo parlor owner Art Lewis, explaining that maritime history has been mapped on that canvas for 300 years.

Lewis knows his business well: His body is covered with more than 100 separate tattoos, although he says there's plenty of room for more.

"You can't separate tattoo history from marine history," he says.

"Many sailors had them for superstitious reasons. Some would have 'Hold-Fast' tattooed across their knuckles so they could get better grips on the boat's rigging during harsh weather. Others would have a crucifix on their back, so if they were whipped, those who were whipping wouldn't be too keen to whip Jesus."

Spanning the centuries

It is this tradition that the National Maritime Museum's new exhibition, "Skin Deep -- A History of Tattooing," navigates. The show runs through Sept. 30.

Starting with Western sailors' 18th-century encounters with the Polynesian tribes of the South Pacific, the exhibit traces the history of tattooing from its popularity among sailors in the 19th and 20th centuries to its acceptance as a fashion accessory today, says curator Karin Buch-Neilsen.

She said explorer Capt. James Cook brought the word "tattoo" to the West after he learned about the practice during a trip to Tahiti in 1769.

By the start of the 20th century, approximately 90 percent of all sailors in the United States Navy were tattooed, according to the exhibit.

The sound of surf rushes out of hidden speakers at the museum. Engravings by Joseph Banks, Cook's naturalist, and 18th-century paintings of South Pacific islanders by John Weber show how deeply "te patu tiki," or "wrapping in images," was rooted in island cultures.

The show's photos and drawings of tattoos span three centuries of marine life. "An Ancient Custom," says an 1880 black and white engraving of a sailor being tattooed on board a ship.

Rudimentary needles made out of sea shell and bone, and sophisticated color engraving equipment, along with an array of tattoo styles from cultures around the globe, make you almost smell the sweat and brine odor of a port tattoo parlor.

"You could see where you'd been traveling; it would be a souvenir with a story based on each one," says Buch-Neilsen.

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