Tattoos are still on the rise. Which also means that their once possible social readability has long become ambiguous. In the catalog of an exhibition just to be seen in Paris, one encounters a valid representation of its modern reach: one in ten adults in France are now tattooed. The Western European average is even higher with Italy having the highest score of 48%.

This is an impressive number and a good reason to take a closer look at the modern renaissance as well as the prehistory of tattoos. In the exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly, does this on a large scale, both geographically and historically, and with a wealth of images, films and showpieces. Starting with an impressive collection of archaeological finds. They make it clear that the practice of tattooing has a history going back millennia. All you have to do is think of “Ötzi“, the Stone Age man, who was freed from the glacial ice and more than five thousand years old, and his tattoos, probably for therapeutic reasons. The transition to ritual and social affiliations marking body drawings may have been flowing: the latter can be detected in all parts of the world, so tattoos as shown have their origin as a global phenomenon.

From the edges of society

However, the corresponding traditions remained reasonably intact only in simply structured societies. In the emerging large, hierarchic societies however, this cultural practice was marginalized. In the literal sense of the word, this is where a tradition emerged early on, in which permanent body drawings were used for social exclusion and stigmatization. Tattoos linked to marginalization became a sign of belonging to a fringe group.

Of course, this tendency towards the marginalization of tattoos looked quite different in different parts of the world. In Japan, for example, the artistically elaborate tattoo, in parallel with the development of colored woodcuts in the eighteenth century, flourished before prohibitions began. At the same time, almost all Christianity – from the very beginning – except for the use of clearly religious symbols – was forced to refrain from body drawings that were exotic to the skin, even for crowned heads.

However, such a direct takeover by the upper class was the exception. In the Western world, the return of tattoos that began in the nineteenth century progressed gradually from the social and often geographic peripheries – remote penal colonies or colonial army bases, sailors on their way – into “normal” society. Whereby the practice emerging from the stigmatizing characters of interned and convicted militants made such self-assertion: with their own codes and iconographies, which quickly attracted the attention of military doctors, police and anthropologists.

Resort to traditional forms

This penetration of the tattoos from the edges, also promoted by freak shows, was one of the preconditions for their slowly in motion coming reglobalization, after World War II . The recourse to traditional forms obtained in indigenous societies was another important moment. Decisive for the emerging styles were the contacts and transfers between the scattered “schools” worldwide and trendsetting tattooists.

No matter how far one lets ones gaze wander: the focus of the Paris exhibition is on these tattoo-renaissance approaches and on their current forms of play. Their great advantage is that they let prominent actors speak in detail. They explain their starting points in videos, describe their styles, the technique, give an impression of their customers, some of which also comment on their own decision for elaborate tattoos themselves. Established figures of the international scene and emerging young stars are not only presented, but also contribute – as a sketch or on the anatomical silicone model – samples of their work, from strictly ornamental to figurative and wildly moved.

Bonds in the high art, but conversely, only a few examples of tattoos provides (apart from depicted “savages”), are part of the game. The title of a shown “Salomé tatouée” by Gustave Moreau probably owes more to a misunderstanding: The ornaments on or better before Salomé’s body namely are clear enough to recognize as ornament of their transparent veil – here the iconographic pretext for that of Moreau also otherwise The most popular techniques were to levitate graphic ornaments over the ground. But once you have traversed the course of the exhibition once, you understand this small rush: The variety of tattoos seem to have really no limits.