The proliferation of tattooing in American life has led to its seeming legitimization, as evidenced in the media through shows like “Miami Ink.” Or perhaps the appearance of tattoos in various cultural conduits—sports, cinema, etc.—has led to their mainstream adoption? Whichever the direction of this cause and effect, it would be difficult to find someone who hasn’t, at some point, wandered into a tattoo shop and flipped through books or perused display posters while contemplating that impromptu commitment to permanence.
“Freaks & Flash” examines the artwork of tattoos as Western folk art. Tattoo flash (the aforementioned design drawings), acetate stencils (used for transferring designs to skin) and sideshow banners advertising tattooed performers combine to chart a visual history of early- to mid-twentieth-century tattoo art. From delicate watercolors of Asian-inspired dragons and tigers from the turn-of-the-century to examples of 1940s wartime political incorrectness, “Freaks & Flash” examines the lineage of tattoo motifs that has shaped our current visual vocabulary on skin.
This focus on the illustrative history of tattoo flash isolates the art object—the drawings—from the human subject, a distinction that lends itself to the show’s success. Illustrated ideas exist independent of human skin with the exception of the sideshow banners, which showcase tattoo illustrations twice removed. The curatorial decision to chart design history and evolution sans skin elevates tattoo flash to a genre on par with, if not above, ink-in-skin tattoos. “Freaks & Flash” presents the design history of body art as a cohesive body of art. (Justin Natale)
Through January 9 at Intuit, 756 N. Milwaukee Ave.