Natural History Museum unveils new tattoo exhibit

The special exhibition will be on view through April 15. Photo by Gabrielle Robinson | Daily Trojan

A new exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles aims to celebrate the history of a highly underrated and often taboo practice of tatooing. Tattoo, an exhibit about the history and the significance of tattoos all around the world, is currently on view at the museum near USC. The exhibit includes historical records of tattoos around the world, the significance of tattoos to various cultures and the works of contemporary tattoo artists.

The exhibit begins with modern works of tattoo artists displayed on silicone bodies. Some works are accompanied by feature videos, while others have paragraphs explaining the style of each artist. Artists featured include Guy Aitchison, Chuey Quintanar, Kari Barba and other skilled tattoo artists from all over the world. 

One of the exhibit’s most compelling components is a feature on Whang Od, a roughly 100-year-old woman from the Philippines known for traditional Kalinga tattoos, the ancient art of hand-tapped tattoos. Whang Od is considered the last traditional Kalinga tattoo artist in the world and has been hand-tattooing headhunters and women in her tribe for more than 80 years. Today, people from all over the world travel to the Kalinga province and trek to her mountain village to receive a tattoo from her. Tattoo manages to capture Whang Od’s motivations and views toward the art of tattooing in its feature, which includes a five-minute video as well as pictures of her tattoos.

Not only does Tattoo showcase these artistic talents, but it also educates visitors on the history and meaning of tattoos across cultures. The exhibit presents the significance of tattoos in countries like Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Algeria and many others. In some exhibits like the feature on Thailand, the displays play short documentaries on tattooing practices of the nation, showing visitors an in-depth perspective of the influence of tattoos. In the exhibit, pictures and tools used by tattoo artists across time are showcased in clear, simple containers, allowing visitors to easily make comparisons between designs of different artists and places around the world just by a turn of the head.

In more recent times, tattoos have been used to signify negative factors as well. Although tattoos originated among non-criminals in Japan, after the practice was outlawed, it became a popular practice among members of the mafia, or the yakuza. In fact, some public baths in Japan today still prohibit people with tattoos from using them. Tattoo explores these societal views of tattoos and their implications not just today, but also in the past.

Tattoo offers a rare feature that distinguishes it from just another regular exhibit. In the middle of the exhibit, visitors have the chance to actually get a tattoo done from a local tattoo artist in the Los Angeles area with an advance reservation. The tattoo parlor stands as a retro-style room in the midst of dark rooms with clear glass cases, not only giving visitors an even more realistic experience but also supporting local artists in the meantime.

In another effort to draw this exhibition toward local tattoo influences, Tattoo explores in depth the types of tattoos that sprung up in the United States as well as the link between tattoos and circuses in the past 200 years. Inside the exhibit, visitors can learn about popular, contemporary tattoos that originated in Los Angeles, as well as the best local places to get a tattoo.

Tattoo is priced at $24.50 for regular visitors but is discounted at $12.00 with a USC student ID. The exhibition will be on view through April 15.