“Marking Portland: The Art of Tattoo” at Portland Art Museum

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Storm Large, Made in Oregon, 2009, Laura Domela
Inkjet printed photograph, 16” x 20”
Photo: courtesy of Portland Art Museum

Once the province of sacred ritual and tribal identification-later a rite of passage for sailors, bikers, and other counterculture denizens-the tattoo has arrived in the early-21st century stripped of much of its symbolic potency and firmly ensconced in the mainstream. What was once a mark of subversion has been appropriated into popular fad and fashion. With Portlanders numbering among the country’s most visible exponents of the bod-mod (body modification) movement, it is apropos that the Portland Art Museum should mount an exhibition such as “Marking Portland: The Art of Tattoo.”

The exhibit consists of three elements. The first is a complement of informational kiosks placed throughout the museum’s galleries, contextualizing historical tattoo practices as evinced across PAM’s Asian and Native American collections. The second component is one of the museum’s first interactive Web outreach programs, which invites community members to post pictures of their own tattoos on the popular photo-sharing site, Flickr. The final and flashiest component of the show was an extravaganza entitled “Skinvisible,” held on July 25 in the museum’s high-ceilinged third-floor ballroom. One part burlesque revue, one part fashion show, and one part Cirque du Soleil, the show was restricted to adults 21 and over, a puzzling limitation since there was no nudity (although many loincloths). There was, however, plenty of contortionism, trapeze acrobatics, goth attire, mood lighting, and machine-generated fog. The players strutted and swung about, endeavoring to look edgy without veering into outright camp. These gloriously cheeseball atmospherics reinforced the impression that tattoos-like yesteryear’s bikinis, Beat poetry, Lenny Bruce albums, and rock-and-roll-has rounded a corner, lost much of its shock value, and become quaint, if not quite yet wholesome.

Concurrent with “Skinvisible” was an exposition of vendors in the museum’s “Sunken Ballroom.” Most of these vendors were local tattoo shops, a few of which exhibited curiosities such as a hunk of tattooed flesh preserved in formaldehyde, reputed to have been taken off the body of a dead man. With its pivoting between information and titillation, kiosks and naughty-circus acrobatics, “Marking Portland” mirrors the larger culture’s back-and-forth between serious examination of an important artform and surface skimming of a major pop-culture phenomenon.

—RICHARD SPEER