Newcastle Museum exhibition on Japanese tattoo art

In today’s Australian culture where tattoos are ever-so popular, the curiosity factor alone should drive crowd numbers at Perseverance, a new exhibit installed this week at Newcastle Museum that pays tribute to the rich Japanese tradition of this ancient artform.

Have a look: A life-size photo of a man wearing the tattoo artwork of Japanese tattoo master Shige being installed as part of the Perseverance show. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers

Have a look: A life-size photo of a man wearing the tattoo artwork of Japanese tattoo master Shige being installed as part of the Perseverance show. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers

The show features an extensive collection of photos taken by University of California-Santa Barbara art professor Kip Fulbeck  of Japanese-style tattoos on men and women in the US and Japan. There is also a collection of “tools of the trade”, including ink, bamboo and percussive work, and more modern tattoo guns.

The exhibit was curated by Takahiro “Horitaka” Kitamura, a tattoo artist at State of Grace Tattoo in San Jose, California. It features the work of seven Japanese master tattoo artists.

Newcastle Museum manager Julie Baird, who has 14 tattoos on her own body, believes the show will resonant with Newcastle. The museum is the only institution in Australia showing Perseverance.

During the run of the show (until April 30), there will be two major events featuring demonstrations and discussions about the art of tattooing. On the evening of March 10 the museum will be open for displays and demos by local tattoo artists, including some who specialise in Japanese art. On April 23 Sydney tattoo artist Kian “Horisumi” Forreal, who works from Authentink Studio in Surry Hills, will discuss his practice and introduce his tools and techniques.

The earliest known history of tattoo art in Japan began in the 8th century when tattoos were made on the faces of criminals and members of local classes as a sign of differentiation, according to a brief history by Kenji Hori in the Perseverance show catalogue published by the Japanese American National Museum. The symbols were called “gei”.

In some ways, the taboo nature of tattoos has remained with the culture of Japan, where tattoos are still associated with crime and the underworld.

Although the use of tattoos for judgement and discrimination eventually faded, there are signs of tattoos reappearing in the 1600s, with prostitutes and their clients showing love for one another by tattooing a dot on each other’s hands.

The dot pattern was also used by men to show their bond to each other, known as vow tattoos.

In 1736 the practice of punishment tattoos was reinstated in Japan, under the name of irezumi, along with ear cutting and rhinotomy (cutting off the nose). The custom was not banned until 1912.

The golden age of Japanese tattoo art was kicked off by illustrations of the four Chinese classical novels Suikoden, which tells the story of 108 heroes given amnesty so they could suppress rebels and foreign invaders.

For Julie Baird, the emotional impact of tattoos cannot be underestimated. She was a piercer in a tattoo studio in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, two decades ago and fondly remembers the interaction with clients.

“It’s a cool sense of intimacy,” she says of the relationship between artist and client. “You have these people for a long period of time. Something huge has happened, so they mark it [with a tattoo]. You get amazing exposure to all these people who just want to talk. When I go back there [to Canada], I still sit and talk to people getting tattoos.”

Perseverance, through April 30, Newcastle Museum. $10 adults, $8 concession and ages 12-18, children under 12 free.