Tatoos in Contemporary Art

Watch the film – https://vimeo.com/ondemand/tunniit/271284766?autoplay=1

Status, 2012

Performance by Jordan Bennett 2012
 Tattooing, Technical equipment, film screening of Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance and Is the Crown at War with us? by Alanis Obomsawin 
Performed/Presented at: Eastern Edge Art Gallery, St. John’s NL
Photo: Eastern Edge Art Gallery

Artur Zmijewski:

 80064. Its title is the camp number of a 92 years old Auschwitz survivor, Jozef Tarnawa. The tattoo has faded with the years and Zmijewski meets the old man in a tattoo parlor and tries to persuade him to have it ‘refreshed’.


The old man is not to be convinced easily. He wants to be left in peace. He is worried that the renewed tattoo will not be ‘original.’ In the end, Zmijweski gets his way and the poor man submits his arm unwillingly to the tattoo artist. In Zmijweski’s own words: ‘When I undertook this film experiment with memory, I expected that under the effect of the tattooing the ‘doors of memory’ would open, that there would be an eruption of remembrance of that time, a stream of images or words describing the painful past. Yet that didn’t happen. But another interesting thing happened. Asked whether, while in the camp, he had felt an impulse to revolt, to protest against the way he was treated, Tarnawa replied: ‘Protest? What do you mean, protest? Adapt – try and survive.’ In the film, suffering, power relationships, and subordination are repeated.


About the controversial work the artist says:

“It’s a renovation of the number, a kind of the respect toward the guy, he is treated as a living monument of the past which needs to be preserved and kept in good condition. And the second meaning of it is re-creation or repetition of the act of violence toward this guy. In both movies, I wanted to open access to the past, really open it, not to commemorate it only, but only open access to it, really jump into the past. The very moment when the tattoo was done or the very moment when people were in the gas chamber […] Deifnitely artists should maintain their position and support curators and institutions which presents this exhibition and fight censorship.”

from: https://news.err.ee/115144/polish-artist-behind-controversial-holocaust-video-art-defends-work-on-etv

Michelle Lacombe

90FeminismsAnne-Marie St-Jean Aubre

  • Michelle Lacombe, Of All the Watery Bodies, I only know my own, documentation, 2013-2014.

Reading a Body

Michelle Lacombe turns her body into a palimpsest for us to decode, mingling constructed and natural signs and generating a complex image of the tensions traversing it. Each of her works comes about in two moments. The first is the work’s production and presentation, focusing on an issue conveyed by the media and art history, which generate an exterior view of the woman. The second is everyday lived experience, in which bodily signs endure, accumulate, recontextualize one another. Lacombe embodies both perspectives simultaneously; her body, a field of struggle, testifies to this.

Revisiting the historical modes of representation of women through the deconstruction of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (1510), Lacombe stands in for the main subject of the scene in The Venus Landscape(2010). The work consists of lines tattooed on her body that serve as guides to the prescribed pose of a reclining, wanton Venus offered up to desiring eyes. The artist denies the prescription by fragmenting her posture in everyday actions, the drawn lines never joining up to render a coherent image of their reference. Nor does she shy away from the tropes associated with women or fear falling into stereotypes: in dealing with maternity, the menstrual cycle, and women’s kinship with nature, her project Of all the watery bodies, I only know my own (2013–16) is an occasion to reflect on the body’s erosion through the monthly loss of its reproductive potential. No longer situated in the landscape, her body becomes the landscape, a terrain that wears down over time, with every cycle.

The voice of women, often devalued, lies at the heart of Italics; Underlining for emphasis (2010 and 2015), which indeed underlines Lacombe’s voice with an invisible line etched inside her lower lip, symbolically marking her agency. She strives for the same goal in all her work: to reveal and explode the barriers that restrain her field of action as she confronts the complexities and nuances inherent to her research.

Translated from the French by Ron Ross

Catherine Opie:


Generic Man, 1987-1989, printed of 2002, Duratran display transparency and light box.

Generic Man, 1987-1989, printed of 2002

Santiago Sierra

160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People … is a video documenting an action that took place at El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo in Salamanca, Spain in December 2000. The artist’s text explains: ‘Four prosititutes addicted to heroin were hired for the price of a shot of heroin to give their consent to be tattooed. Normally they charge 2,000 or 3,000 pesetas, between 15 and 17 dollars, for fellatio, while the price of a shot of heroin is around 12,000 pesetas, about 67 dollars.’ (Quoted from the artist’s text accompanying the video.) The single-channel black and white video constitutes an informal record of the event in which the four participating women allow their backs to be used for the tattoo. It shows the women – two fair haired and two dark haired – arrive in the space and take up positions, naked from the waist up and with their backs towards the camera, straddling black bentwood chairs. During the action they move constantly, chatting, laughing, smoking, turning to look behind them, curiously watching the female tattoo artist and commenting on her processes until, finally, she cleans their wounds and covers them with bandages. During the film, two men in dark clothes pass in and out of the frame, holding a tape measure over the bared backs for the initial measurement and taking photographs of the process as it develops.

Wim Delvoye


Tim Steiner being tattooed by Wim Delvoye
Wim Delvoye – tattooing people and pigs – 2005

Pigs as living, walking canvas – Delvoye’s work

Besides being showcased at the Shanghai fair, the animals were also displayed at galleries, although this move was received with mixed reactions. While the idea was to make the pigs a living, walking canvas, it went further beyond their death. The animals would later be stuffed and sold as souvenirs. Even though the animal rights laws were lax in China compared to other places, Wim Delvoye still believes that the pigs which he tattooed when they were smaller received humane treatment and were sedated before the procedure.

John Murchie, Black and Blue 1996


 I’m thinking about your relationship to lines, in particular. Can you talk about your tattoos?

JM: They’re still there!

KH: [Laughs] Yes, well, in some ways they are only slightly less ephemeral than your paper cups and napkins, in the sense that you yourself are rather ephemeral in reference to geological or cosmic time…

JM: True. I honestly don’t remember how I began working with lines exactly, except that it began soon after I started working at NSCAD. My use of straight lines is probably another reflection of the fact that I was interested in making works in visual art but had no particular skills or training, and I also had no interest in gaining those skills. That compounded with my background literature and my interest in science and mathematics. As for the tattoos, they are artworks that I’ve had for twenty-two years now. Most of my life I’ve worked in some sort of job where I’m dressed with sleeves covering the majority of the work, so the question most people will wonder is how far up my body they go. There is an implication that they continue.

KH: I’m looking at them now – they are on the center of your forearms, beginning at the wrist and ending at the elbow. I remember you saying once that one was black and the other blue, though of course now the black one is blueing, and the blue one is blueing further, which is also interesting in terms of tracking time. Lines are of course related to a human sense of time as a linear concept, and certainly your continued use of the line connects much of your work through time.

John Murchie, “Black and Blue”, 1996. Photos courtesy of Gemey Kelly.

JM: When I got them done in the mid-‘90s, there weren’t that many people around with tattoos. Those from my father’s generation who had been to war certainly had some, but aside from that they weren’t that prevalent, but were starting to be. I’ve always been interested in how a sculpture can be a painting and vice versa. I still see them as my drawings, basically. On the other hand, I’m obviously a three-dimensional thing, so its sculptural, and also I see it as an ongoing performance, until my last breath. It’s the only way I can give my body real value. I have offered this artwork to the National Gallery of Canada. I told them they couldn’t have it until I passed away. And then, they would have to make a decision as to whether they preferred to see it as a drawing, and skin me, or see it as a sculpture.

KH: And embalm you?

JM: [Laughs] Yes. It’s their choice. I see both possibilities as perfectly adequate and true, but obviously you have to make a choice. Curatorially speaking, I think they would make the better choice than I would. From my perspective, it’s one of my most successful works.

KH: I’m led to think of Santiago Sierra’s 160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People from 2000, which of course was done much later and garnered a lot of negative attention for the obvious problematics – paying prostitutes the price of their choice substance to be tattooed across their backs as some sort of unit. Obviously your work is exceedingly different, but I can’t help but bring Sierra to mind. Both works, regardless of their extreme difference, involve an attempt at geometry against the fleshiness of the human body, and demand that the living body be seen as an art object.

JM: Yes well even in my case not everyone has been empathetic with the work either, like my mother, for example. [Laughs] She thought it was the most stupid thing she’d heard in her life. Conversations around their utility come up most often in hospitals when my sleeves are rolled up to do blood work and the like. I guess they look suspiciously like the surgical marks doctors draw when they’re getting ready to cut you open.

Douglas Gordon

Tattoo (for Reflection)

The work of Douglas Gordon revolves around a constellation of dualities and dialectics. Mistaken identities, doubles, split personalities, and such opposites as good and evil, and self and other are thematized as inseparable. Gordon’s films, video installations, photographs, and texts transform differences into uncanny, nuanced pairs.

Gordon approaches film as ready-made or found object, mining the potential collective memory that exists in cinematic fragments, and in the process, disclosing unseen or overlooked details and associations. His installation through a looking glass (1999) features the well-known scene from Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver in which Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, asks, “You talkin’ to me?” while gazing into a mirror. In Gordon’s piece, the scene is projected onto dual screens placed on opposite walls of a gallery space. The original episode from the movie, filmed as a reflection in the mirror, is shown on one wall. The other screen displays the same episode with the image reversed, flipped left to right. The two facing images, which begin in sync, progressively fall out of step, echoing the character’s loss of control and his mental breakdown. These discordant projected images seem to respond to one another, thus trapping the viewer in the crossfire. In its almost dizzying play of dualities, through a looking glassperfectly articulates the dialectical inversions, doublings, and repetitions that are the central concerns of Gordon’s work.

Gordon also uses still photography to capture performative acts, as in Tattoo (for Reflection) (1997). In accordance with Gordon’s instructions, the writer Oscar van den Boogaard had the word “guilty” tattooed in reverse on the back of his left shoulder; the tattoo can only be read via its reflection in a mirror. Gordon revels in the mixed messages found in the tattoo’s various cultural associations, from its use as an identifying mark on prisoners to its current incarnation as a subculture status symbol. In true Gordonian, reflexive fashion—with the word legible on van den Boogaard’s back only when reversed—the photograph becomes an index of an index.


Three inches, black no. 2


Douglas Gordon Douglas Gordon, Never, Never (white), 2000. C-type digital print. 62 x 76 cm (unframed). © Studio lost but found / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017.

Fastwurms: See AGYU book

Donkey Ninja Witch, 2010

David Shrigley:

Shannon Gerard: Willy


From https://davidshrigley.com/tattoos

More References:
Russian Prison Tattoos:

Russian Prison Tattoos


Art Hurts: CBC Series


Watch Tattoos,

 Leo Zhuoran 2019

As a child, my friends and I used to draw watches on each other’s wrist for fun. Back in the days, a ball point pen is not easy to find for us since everyone uses pencil and only adult and older children can use a pen. To share a ball point pen that was hard to find and draw different watches on each others wrist was a simple mark of friendship. To recreate this childhood memory, I asked my classmates to draw each other a wrist watch with their own design and photographed it then translated it into a printable design. I then printed these “watches” on temporary tattoo paper and shared it with the class.

Matching Freckles, Sydney Coles, 2019

Sarah Hernandes, Embrace, 2019.

Winter 2022 Tattoo class pictures!