Tattoos have been around for more than 5,000 years, and they’ve evolved in colors, shapes, sizes and styles.
Even the process of tattooing varies among cultures around the world.
The “Tattoo” exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History showcases tattoos as pieces of history and explores the traditions behind tattooing.
Across Asia, Oceania and the Americas, tattoos were not only seen as art thousands of years ago, but they also signified spirituality and social standing.
The art of tattooing traveled to Europe on the skin of sailors and explorers toward the end of the 19th century. As the practice spread, artists in Europe, Asia and North America exchanged ideas and techniques.
Although electric tattoo guns with metal needles and synthetic pigments are most commonly used today, some cultures still use traditional tools made out of shark teeth or cactus pine needles.
Along with more detailed information, photos, videos and artifacts, the Field Museum’s exhibit offers visitors the chance to watch tattoo artists give live demonstrations.
The museum showcases 15 life-size silicone body forms that have been tattooed by contemporary master tattoo artists for this particular display.
Mother and son Margaret and Patrick Sitzer said they visited the museum because advertisements around Chicago made them want to see the exhibit and learn more about the history of tattooing.
“It was interesting to see early on in the exhibit the idea that tattoos were very much a mark of belonging, whereas when tattoos started showing up in Europe, it was more of an act of defiant individualism,” Patrick said, “which is interesting to think about … when its origins were basically the opposite.”
Margaret said she knew a few facts about the history of tattoos, but she enjoyed learning about what’s happening in tattoo culture today.
“I was aware that, historically, tattoos were part of culture, respect and history, [but also used] in terms of identifying gangs and the individuality,” Margaret said. “But now there is a resurgence in areas like the islands, where people are getting tattoos for those original historical reasons and pride of their background.”
Despite not having any tattoos himself, Patrick said learning about them has given him an appreciation for the art.
“This exhibit was a nice reminder that tattoos are a beautiful art form and have a huge cultural significance,” Patrick said.
The exhibit will be open through April 30, 2017, with live tattooing demos on Feb. 11, 12, 18 and 19; March 25 and 26; and April 8, 9, 29 and 30.