Skin as container: tattoo narratives and content creation at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Much has been written about tattoos as a form of cultural production and more recently scholars have shared insights across the fields of feminism, sociology, cultural studies and consumer research.

‘Skin reflects the dynamic relationship between inside and outside, self and society, between personal identity projects and marketplace cultures.’ (Patterson and Schroeder, 2010 pg. 254)

Just as books embody knowledge and meaning, the skin too can be read and interpreted through body adornment. In July 2017 Victoria and Albert Museum Artist in Residence and Jewellery Designer  Silvia Weidenbach came to me with an interesting project proposal. Silvia wanted to interrogate how four disciplines including book binding, jewellery design, art history and tattoo art could come together to produce new meanings for thinking about content production in the museum context. The project raised questions on authorship, intellectual property, knowledge, skills, craft and expertise, my thoughts here provide some interesting thoughts for future analysis.

Silvia’s residency is supported by the Gilbert Trust and the V&A holds the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection, a repository of objects, many in precious materials and small in scale. One of the objects is an 18th century snuff box made in Saxony, then a centre of production in luxury goods, it depicts a chimney sweep a symbol of good luck set in hardstones standing against a trellis pattern of red stone. Silvia’s residency is informed by this collection, her work is influenced by the 17th century cabinet of curiosity melding historical techniques and new technologies. The chimney sweep on the snuff box became the point of reference for exploring the synergies between the disciplines noted above.

Torsten Illner is a tattoo artist based in Germany, Silvia was interested in tattoo as a form of engraving, embodying a permanence that jewellery by its nature doesn’t have. Over a course of week at the V&A Silvia and Torsten mined the Gilbert Collection for imagery to create a body of new work that fused tattoo art with jewellery design. Torsten’s tools of the trade include DIY hack tattoo machines made from sourced components, a mix of found objects and bric-a-brac, for the purpose of this project Silvia 3d printed jewellery parts and embellished with crystal, fixed them to a tattoo machine and produced a bespoke implement to write and draw with a tattoo needle onto surfaces.

Rita Lass is a book artist based in Germany, Silvia introduced me to Rita as the third collaborator on the project. Silvia had asked Rita to make a box to contain the tattoo machine sing her skills in binding and box making. During her time at the V&A Rita utilised tools and materials from the book conservation department to make the box including bone folders, awls and leather. On production of the box the tattoo machine was carefully placed inside whilst Silvia and myself gathered ideas about a public event to test the machine in the context of discussions around ornament and adornment.

Beatriz Chadour Sampson is an independent curator and jewellery historian, we invited her to speak at the public event to unravel the connections between what at first appear to be quite disparate areas of practice. On the day in question Silvia provided a brief overview of her work before introducing Torsten and Rita to the audience, what followed was part demonstration and part in-conversation about the origins of body adornment. Beatriz highlighted the symbolism of a motif or a jewel as being personal to the wearer, both have a narrative and both can be hidden on the body or overt in their display. She drew attention to the physicality of the tattoo needle, in applying it to an array of surfaces, paper, leather and orange skin producing words and symbols, the needle was then used on Rita’s carefully constructed leather box to pen inscriptions and decorate with motifs from gold boxes found in the Gilbert Collection. Torsten then tattooed the image of the chimney sweep from the 18th century stuff box onto the lid of the box, Silvia finished the box by topping it with a 3d printed adornment.

The project surfaced some interesting issues around the creation of new knowledge in relation to objects and imagery.  Use of imagery for the project as inspiration was done in accordance with V&A copyright and permissions. The V&A is a vast repository for ideas and  content and image use is granted in some instances for educational non commercial purposes.  Work produced during the residency remains the joint property of the artist and the V&A, at the end of the residency ownership passes to the artist. The V&A has the right to reproduce the works for non-commercial purposes after the end of the residency. With the popularity of social media platforms such as Instagram it is becoming harder for institutions to effectively police image usage and some cultural institutions such as the Rijksmuseum have lifted restrictions making a vast catalogue of content readily available. IP rights in relation to the tattoo artist and his role in the creation of new content needs further analysis. In UK law IP rests with the artist whilst in the US a number of high profiled cases regarding copyright infringement and the film industry have brought attention to the difficulties in distributing and using images claimed by their originator.

V&A residents must demonstrate innovative ways to respond to the collections merging new technologies with a sound understanding of their discipline. Collaboration was key to this project in bringing practitioners together to discuss the creative interplay between different forms of production. Many of the processes involved in this project are analogous with publishing, including content commissioning, use of images, narrative and copyright whilst much of the practice illuminated here covers the production of the book as the object such as book binding and the use of the tattoo needle to create words and meaning. Beatriz coined a new term as part of the discussion ‘Tattoo Schmuck’, schmuck being the German word for jewellery with a nod towards the German backgrounds of Silvia, Torsten and Rita.

As part of the  project the image of the chimney sweep was tattooed by Torsten onto the inside of my ankle, the chimney sweep’s brush was replaced by a bunch of forget-me-not flowers.  The permanence of the gesture ensures I am reminded of the meanings inherent in the image and my fellow collaborators.

Leanne Manfredi

Patterson, M and Schroeder, J. (2010) ‘Borderlines: Skin tattoos and consumer culture theory’, Marketing Theory 10(3), pp. 253-267. doi: 10.1177/1470593110373191

Silvia Weidenbach announced as the first V&A Gilbert Collection Resident