The art of tattooing has been around for thousands of years and has historical roots in many different cultures throughout the world. 

The Berkshire Museum‘s latest exhibit, Living Ink: The Art of Tattoos, takes an in-depth look at the art form, exploring the artistic, scientific, and historical elements of tattooing.  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Craig Langlois, Chief Experience Officer at the Berkshire Museum, to learn more about the exhibit. 

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: We’re coming to you today from the Berkshire Museum, a window to the world where you can explore history, nature, and art.

And a new exhibition here is taking a deeper look at an art form that you probably see every day. It’s one that’s as expressive and unique as each and every one of us are.

The art of tattooing has been around for thousands of years and has had a presence in many different cultures throughout the world. The Berkshire Museum’s latest exhibit, entitled “Living Ink: The Art of Tattoos,” offers an in-depth look into this art form, exploring its artistic, scientific, and historical elements.

I spoke with Craig Langlois, Chief Experience Officer at the Berkshire Museum, to learn more.

Craig Langlois, Berkshire Museum: First off, this is a home-grown exhibition. We sourced the artists and all the content with our staff here at the Berkshire Museum.

And our interest really grew from the — the intersection of sort of art, science, and history and the ability for tattooing to kind of tell all three of those stories at the same time.

There is incredible history associated with — with tattooing. The science behind it is really fascinating.

And then, we also wanted to really sort of focus-in and highlight the art form of tattooing. It’s a form that — it’s alive, right? Hence the title. You’re tattooing a living thing and each canvas or each, each person is slightly different, and as an artist you need to respond to that and modify your design in such a way to have it be the way you want it to be.

Zydalis Bauer: Before we get into the science and the history of tattooing, since it’s a home-grown exhibition, I really want to talk about the artists that were chosen to be featured in here. There’s over ten of them, so give us a little bit of background on who they are and why you decided to pick some of them.

Craig Langlois: So, the artists come as internationally recognized artists, some from here in Massachusetts, others from as far away as Copenhagen and northern London.

And our goal was really to sort of highlight the different sort of subgenres of tattooing, who is really good at geometric patterning, who is really, really pushing the sort of subject matter, who is working in a way to really focus on covering up scars or making people feel more comfortable within their own skin?

And that was sort of our jumping off point for — for who we selected for — for this exhibition.

Zydalis Bauer: We can’t talk about the present-day artists without touching on the historical and cultural aspects of tattooing, which I know the exhibit touches on.

So, tell me how this exhibit will help broaden viewers’ perspective on this art form?

Craig Langlois: Sure. So, there’s — there’s two main components to our — our sort of cultural and historical background pieces in this exhibition. There’s a great photo essay component from ‘National Geographic’ photographer named Chris Rainer, who spent eight years traveling the world and documenting the use of tattooing in various cultures in the areas he was visiting.

And then the other is, what our staff kind of brought to the table, which was some really in-depth research in terms of how those cultures approach tattooing, how far back in history it kind of goes, you know, dating back almost 5000 years and what the significance is and the various styles and genres that these individual cultures were using.

The way the exhibition is laid out is, that’s kind of what you’re you experience first when you walk into the space, is you get the sort of sense of the global phenomenon of tattooing and the historical context of it.

And then you as you move into the individual parlors that we set up for these contemporary artists, you can start to see the correlation between their work and that really rich history.

Zydalis Bauer: I really, really, really loved how creative you all were when creating this exhibition. I mean, you really made it feel like you were stepping into a tattoo parlor, as if you were the next client.

So, having this juxtaposition of the history of the art of tattooing with the present, what do we learn from that? What’s something fascinating or some trends that you notice when creating this exhibit?

Craig Langlois: I really hope that people walk away understanding how talented tattoo artists really are. There are few media in the art world that have the challenges of being a tattooer associated with it, and really sort of highlighting the skill and the craft and the history.

And hopefully an audience member is kind of walking away understanding that relationship, that when they walk into a tattoo parlor, you’re purchasing a work of art that you’re going to wear for — for the rest of your life. I think our design speaks to that sort of intimacy and that level of trust as you kind of walk into those individual parlors and kind of move around.

But the other the other sort of interesting piece that we kind of wove into this is that we wanted to have a sense of interactivity as well. We didn’t want the viewer just to be, you know, looking at this fantastic work from these artists, but also sort of responding to it in a way where we have areas where they can answer questions about why did they get a tattoo, or if they were to get a tattoo, what would it be about? Or to even try your hand a little bit at understanding the subtle nuances of how to tattoo with some fake skin and some markers, so you can attempt to draw on something that is realistic of flesh material.

Zydalis Bauer: Well, and you touched a little on this earlier, the science behind tattooing. I think it’s something that might be overlooked. I mean, I know I overlooked it. And I was like, “oh, yeah, there is — there has to be a science behind it, because as you mentioned, you’re tattooing on a living person.

So, how does this exhibit explore that aspect of tattooing?

Craig Langlois: So, it spends a little bit of time in the space discussing how tattoo ink is applied to the human body and the human body’s response to tattoo ink. I won’t spoil all that for the people who are going to come see the —  the exhibition.

But it really is a fascinating process, how your body is kind of constantly responding to — to the ink. And, you know, going back to the skill of the tattooers, knowing how deep that it needs to penetrate between the various layers of skin, how that’s going to create different types of effects. How do you create a design that’s going to last knowing that you have environmental factors, sun, abrasion points on your elbows, or say fingers, like what’s going to wear away really quickly?

And how all that comes together to make a really well-thought out and designed tattoo.

Zydalis Bauer: When you say, “all of that,” it’s kind of fascinating to really think back, you know, like you said, 5,000 years ago, ancient civilizations were doing these practices.

What’s something interesting that you learned from the historical part of tattooing that we can see in this exhibit as well?

Craig Langlois: Just human ingenuity, I think is a big part of it. You think of people 5,000 years ago as kind of sitting around or just or just thinking about body modification and body ornamentation.

And, you know, somewhere along the line, someone decided to take a sharp stick and start poking their skin with it. And then from there, the growth of the phenomenon that is sort of modern day tattooing and the ability to create images on — on skin through the use of —  of very simple techniques of small pointed objects.

And a little bit of what ash and dye kind of mixed together, being rubbed into skin, to — to what we have now, which is, you know, a commercialized art form.

Zydalis Bauer: We know that tattoos can be taboo for some, celebrated by others.

But regardless, what do you hope that viewers and visitors really leave and take away after viewing the special exhibit at the Berkshire Museum?

Craig Langlois: I think part of our goal was definitely to kind of remove the taboo and understand that beyond whether or not you personally want a tattoo or have a tattoo, is that there is a deep cultural significance to a lot of tattoos around the world and how they’re viewed in various cultures. As well as really sort of highlighting the art form.

I’ll say it again, like these tattooers, what they can do with a moving instrument that’s, you know, oscillating at an extremely high speed and pressing into to three-dimensional form to create an image that looks right, both when you’re looking at it from six inches away or, you know, four feet away, is a phenomenal skill.

And regardless of you think tattoos are taboo or, you know, an accepted form of self-expression, really, we should be celebrating these artists and the art form as something on the same level as traditional painting or sculpture.