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Art of the Sailor leaves its mark on Vancouver

— Courtesy of the Vancouver Maritime Museum

Latest Vancouver Maritime Museum exhibit explores the nautical origins of a popular body art form

Over the past century, body art has made a fascinating journey from taboo to trend in Western society. The ink that covered a select few on the fringes of society can now be seen on anyone with enough bravery and money to afford it.

— Courtesy of the Vancouver Maritime Museum

— Courtesy of the Vancouver Maritime Museum

Explorers of the sea were among the first people to popularize the use of body art in the West as European sailors adapted the Polynesian practice of decorating their skin with ink designs. Tattoos let mariners commemorate a journey and mark an experience.

Tattoos and the art of scrimshaw — carvings or engravings made on bone or ivory — were a way to create permanence in the ever-changing lifestyles of seamen.

Vancouverites can now share some of the experiences of modern-day sailors at the Vancouver Maritime Museum’s exhibit Tattoos & Scrimshaw: The Art of the Sailor. The exhibits showcase popular sailor body art and scrimshaw, both used to depict life at sea.

Curator Patricia Owen says the two art forms are highlighted together because of common themes found in both.

“A part of the exhibit is that relationship. They were similar: the techniques were similar, the imagery was similar,” Owen told The Link. “Sailors, they often do what they’d see: you got the ships, you got the anchors, the rope, so you’d see that similarly on scrimshaw. There’s definitely a link there.”

Photographer Kathryn Mussallem compiled an impressive collection of photographs depicting modern-day sailor body art over the past five years.  But even though the pictures are recent, marketing officer for Vancouver Maritime Museum Jen Hill says the images depicted are timeless.

“[The sailors’] haircuts haven’t changed, their uniforms haven’t changed in two hundred years, their tattoos haven’t changed in as long, so you can’t tell if these were taken in the 1940s or 1960s, or 2012.”

While the imagery in sailor body art has not seen many changes over the years, the same cannot be said about public opinion. What was a way to recognize a fellow sailor or a former prisoner has turned into a widespread method of permanent skin decoration.

Chris Hold, a local tattoo artist and one of the main contributors to the Art of the Sailor exhibit, says it has been a positive change.

“Before, having a tattoo denoted that you were part of something very fringe, and now it’s not, which is great for humanity, because humans always wanted to decorate themselves in permanent and semi-permanent ways. That it’s not as taboo, I think, is healthy for the expectations we have for how we’re supposed to look,” Hold said.

“You can be okay making decisions in what your skin looks like now, which seems like an obvious thing, but [it] isn’t.”

Although tattoos have become more socially acceptable, many designs pay tribute to the origins of body art in the Western world.  Hold says there is a noticeable cycle in popularity of several traditional nautical designs.

[pullquote]”Tattoos let mariners commemorate a journey and mark an experience.”[/pullquote]

“Lately it’s been one of four: a swallow, an anchor, a tall ship or a mermaid,” Hold told The Link.

While most people nowadays do not get a swallow tattoo with the purpose of showing off their sailing experience, Hold says this type of cultural appropriation of the sailor tattoo is not a new practice.

“Cultural appropriation for sailor tattoos by people who are not sailors has always been happening. The imagery that people wear wasn’t always just exclusive to sailors,” Hold explained.

Even though sailor tattoo art has been appropriated by people of all ages and occupations, some designs remain off-limits for the general public. For example, any tattoo that identifies the rank and file of a naval officer is still taboo.  Hold explained that some types of tattoos can even be dangerous for people to display.

“It’s amazing that something can continue to have that power, and not be diluted by abuse or dispersion into polite society,” Hold said. “I think there’s something very mystical and dreamlike about that incredible power of a symbol to carry a fear like that.”

The power of the symbol has been drawing Vancouverites to educate themselves on the art of the sailor. Owen says the exhibit is one of the most popular ones Vancouver Maritime Museum has ever had. Exhibits at the center of attention also surprised the curators.

“It’s put a highlight on the scrimshaw, which is funny, because we all thought that it would be the tattoos that got everybody in, and it’s the scrimshaw that took the spotlight there,” Owen said. “But we’re hoping it’ll swing back to the body art, and the role of the sailor in how it has evolved.”


Tattoos and Scrimshaw: The Art of the Sailor is open to the public at the Vancouver Maritime Museum through October 13, 2013.


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