A design by Ann Arbor-based tattoo artist Leo Zulueta, known as "the father of modern tribal tattooing" Credit: Thomas Duval

Is tattooing an art form? Answers vary. People who work at tattoo parlors will respond in the affirmative without batting an inked eyelid. My parents would adamantly disagree; not only does Jewish law forbid the practice (Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves”), but many Jews of my grandparents’ generation associate tattoos with the Holocaust and don’t care for any kind of reminder. “Tattoo,” a new exhibit at the Field Museum, doesn’t provide any kind of resolution, which is part of what makes the show so worthwhile. The Field tends to water down its exhibitions for children and mass audiences, but to its credit “Tattoo” displays a broad and complicated subject in all its messiness. At the same time, the show is approachable and easy to follow: it’s possible that someone who objects to tattooing will leave the Field with a new understanding and perhaps even an appreciation of the craft.

The central conflict in “Tattoo” is one that has surrounded tattooing for centuries—the tension between tribalism and individualism. Throughout their history the role of tattoos has vacillated between these two tendencies. One of the first objects visitors of “Tattoo” see is a silicon bust of a naked human’s backside draped in tribal tattoos. These designs, which resemble an interlocking pattern of whale tails rendered in the thick lines of Native American art, are the work of Leo Zulueta, a tattoo artist based out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, who’s known as “the father of modern tribal tattooing.” Though this piece was made in 2013, it’s based on the traditional techniques of practitioners in Borneo and inspired by the tattoos of Fais Island in Micronesia. “Tribal tattoos” may be a trendy statement of rebellion, but they’ve historically served as an ethnic identifier.

The extensive time line of tattooing and its sweeping geography are established early on. An image captured by Charles Carpenter, the Field’s first official head photographer, at the 1904 World’s Fair focuses on Shirake Osawa, a member of the indigenous Ainu people of northern Japan, who has a thick tattoo around her mouth. Another photograph depicts a Mojave girl, whose tattooed chin reflects a Mojave tradition passed on to women once they entered adolescence. There are carvings that depict the scarification tattooing technique of the Makonde people in Tanzania and Mozambique. Visitors learn that European tattoo artists date back as far as the 17th century.

Before the 20th century tattoos were more often considered to be signs of tribal membership, but afterward the practice increasingly became a symbol of exclusion and oppression. During the Armenian genocide many women were forced into prostitution, and tattoos were used to identify them as such. A haunting black-and-white photo from 1919 shows an Armenian woman staring mournfully into the camera, with blurred text and indiscriminate shapes on her face and chest. The exhibit also cleverly and thoughtfully addresses tattooing’s relationship to the Holocaust: for example, there’s a photograph of one man standing next to his grandfather, both flashing the concentration camp number tattooed on the latter’s arm in what is at once a reminder of the atrocity and a gesture of solidarity. In this case, the oppressed subvert the evil legacy of the oppressors.

That notion informs a revelatory section of “Tattoo” that deals with the considerable role prisons and prison culture play in contemporary tattooing. Tattoos were used in 19th-century Europe to mark prisoners as a danger to society, but in time incarcerated people came to use them as decorative badges of honor. One panel features various drawings used in gulags, such as a wolf in a soldier’s uniform groping a naked woman. There are photographs taken by Irina Ionesco of nude yakuza, enshrouded in full-body tattoos, sitting stoically in public baths.

Toward the end of “Tattoo,” museumgoers witness the emergence of body art as a significant cultural force. Sailor Jerry (real name, Norman Keith Collins) was a Hawaiian tattoo artist whose incorporation of southeast Asian imagery proved a massive influence on contemporary tattooing. His frequent use of snakes, skulls, knives, and roses can be seen everywhere from the Grateful Dead’s album covers to the green-and-red arms of your neighborhood bartender. In 1976, the world’s first tattoo convention in Houston spawned a newfound resurgence in body art.

The final section showcases noteworthy present-day tattoo artists. (A rotating cast of local artists is inking visitors who’ve made appointments in a makeshift parlor at the end of the exhibit.) The standout designs of Montreal­-based Yann Black are rigid and sophisticated geometric patterns that wouldn’t be out of place in the Art Institute’s Moholy-Nagy show. But because of the ways in which the works are layed out on body parts, there are noticeable pockets of untattooed flesh; it reminded me of Miles Davis’s famous observation about Ahmad Jamal’s piano playing, that the spaces between the notes are just as important as the notes themselves.

Today, in a return to tribalism, tattoos have become a distinguishing feature of the creative class in every region of the Western world. But thanks to Black and other tattoo artists, people will continue to get idiosyncratic body art that’s as unique as their own bodies. By the end of “Tattoo,” one can’t help but come to the conclusion that existing as an individual and as part of a community aren’t mutually exclusive.  v