The National Museum of The Royal Navy's newest exhibition celebrates the history of British tattooing

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It's this journey, from the roots of tattooing in the UK to its present day popularity, that's explored in 'Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed', a major exhibition coming to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard opening 30 June.

The exhibition is on a national tour and was curated by The National Maritime Museum Cornwall. It offers a genuinely ground-breaking and comprehensive history of British tattooing, featuring cutting edge designers, leading academics and major private collectors. It tells a story that challenges long-standing myths and pre-conceptions about tattooing when it comes to class, gender and age, whilst at the same time giving a voice to and celebrating the astonishingly rich artistic heritage of tattooing as an art form in the UK.

Among several highlights of the exhibition is a chance to see the impressive ‘100 Hands’ project, curated by Alice Snape of Things and Ink magazine, which features 100 silicone arms each tattooed with an original design by top artists from across the UK.

While in Portsmouth, the exhibition will include additional artefacts and activities specifically highlighting the significance and traditions of tattoos within the Royal Navy. For sailors tattoos mapped journeys on the sea and through life, they are a walking biography on the body, symbolising where one had travelled, one’s job and who one loves.

The National Museum of the Royal Navy’s own folk music-playing, Lindy-hop-loving, tattooed curator Alice Roberts-Pratt, is working with navy veterans to source a collection of fascinating first person stories from sailors about their own tattoos and visitors keen to add to, or start their own ink collection. There are even plans for some pre-booked live tattooing available on selected dates during the exhibition to coincide with National Tattoo Day on 17 July (tbc).

The exhibition features over 400 original artworks, photographs and historic artefacts. It explores this history in depth and shows that while the word tattoo may have come into the English language following Captain Cook’s voyage, this was not the start of the story of British tattooing. While showcasing the rich maritime heritage of tattoos, the exhibition also shows how people from all areas of society have always been tattooed. From ruffians to royalty; from sailors to socialites; from pilgrims to punks: tattoos have been etched into bodies throughout British history.

Showcasing the work of major tattoo artists from George Burchett, via the Bristol Tattoo Club, to Alex Binnie and Lal Hardy this is the largest gathering of real objects and original tattoo artwork ever assembled in the United Kingdom. The exhibition features items from three of the most important private collections of tattoo material in Britain, belonging to Willie Robinson, Jimmy Skuse, and Paul ‘Rambo’ Ramsbottom, providing a rare opportunity to display original artwork and artefacts not otherwise on public display.

The exhibition also delves into previously unseen private archives that reveal hidden histories, including the incredible real story of Britain’s pioneering female tattoo artist, Jessie Knight.

It also includes major contemporary art commissions from three tattoo artists working in very different tattoo traditions. Each artist has created a unique design on a hyper realistic body sculpture which speaks to the historic artefacts and artworks around it. Tihoti Faara Barff’s work celebrates the modern revival of Tahitian tattooing; Matt Houston’s commission is a heroic celebration of the sailor tattoo; and Aimée Cornwell, a second-generation artist and rising star in the tattoo world, illustrates how tattooing is breaking down different artistic boundaries with her own form of fantasia.

The exhibition is guest curated by Dr Matt Lodder, lecturer in Contemporary Art History and Director of American Studies at the University of Essex, supported by co-curators Stuart Slade and Derryth Ridge of The National Maritime Museum Cornwall and Alice Snape of ‘Things and Ink’ magazine who curates the ‘100 Hands’.

Dr Lodder says, “Whilst British and global museums have had a longstanding interest in Western tattooing, none have ever managed to fully combine serious academic research with access to the vast but hidden troves of tattoo ephemera kept closely guarded in private collections.

“In this exhibition, we have finally been able to match the most current and cutting-edge research on British tattoo history – which challenges all the most deeply-held perceptions about the practice, its origins, its extent, and its reception – with unparalleled access to the true custodians of tattooing’s history: the artists and their families who have cared for these objects and their stories over decades.

“Tattooing is a magical, romantic, exciting and often-misunderstood art-form, and we hope that our exhibition will communicate some of that magic to visitors.”

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