When poet and artist Sasha LaPointe was first asked to curate the First Nations section at the Museum of Pop Culture’s current “Body of Work: Tattoo Culture” exhibition, she admits that it was “slightly overwhelming.”

LaPointe, who is from the Upper Skagit and Nooksack Indian Tribe, explains that, although she has a number of tattoos (many of which — such as a salmon on her wrist, sword ferns and blackberries — celebrate her Coast Salish identity), she is “in no way a tattoo expert. I am a poet and a writer, and I happen to get tattoos a lot,” she says with a laugh. “My approach [to the exhibition] was rooted in our stories and our language and how we choose to adorn ourselves.”

Much of “Body of Work,” which runs through May 31, 2021, uses story to look at the history and artistry of tattoo, specifically through the lens of pop culture. The exhibition, which opened Feb. 1, was paused for six months when MoPOP closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Sept. 18, the museum has once again opened to the public.

The show is organized into 10 sections, including tattoo history, service/military tattoos, counterculture and alternative lifestyles, global trends, and tattoo art featuring local artists. It showcases original photographs; contemporary and historic artifacts (think the evolution of tattoo guns and other tattooing tools); filmed interviews; and artwork from 11 Northwest-based tattoo artists including Aaron Bell (of Slave to the Needle), LolliPop Morlock (Bad Apple Tattoo) and Ricky Gaspar (Local Boy Tatau).

“Tattoo has a 5,000-year-plus history,” says Amalia Kozloff, head curator for the MoPOP exhibition, “but we’re really only looking deeply at the past 50 years.” She notes that a brief overview of the history is provided to help contextualize the exhibition, but that the main focus of “Body of Work” is the period of time when the acceptance and popularization of tattoos was driven by pop culture as well as myriad underground or counterculture scenes. “Tattoo is its own art form and always has been one of the truest art forms, which is self-expression.”

MoPOP’s “Body of Work” exhibition includes original photographs, contemporary and historic artifacts, filmed interviews, and artwork from 11 Northwest-based tattoo artists. (Grant Hindsley / Courtesy of Museum of Pop Culture)
MoPOP’s “Body of Work” exhibition includes original photographs, contemporary and historic artifacts, filmed interviews, and artwork from 11 Northwest-based tattoo artists. (Grant Hindsley / Courtesy of Museum of Pop Culture)
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It’s a fitting show for Seattle, which is home to a large and well-respected tattoo community, as well as the oldest tattoo parlor in the United States: Seattle Tattoo Emporium. The business, established in 1941 under the name Seattle Tattoo, originally consisted of founder Clarence J. Danny Danzl tattooing people in a tavern on First Avenue in what was then known as Seattle’s Skid Road district. In the 1950s, the popularity of tattoos declined with the rise of a conformist, conservative era (both socially and politically), but Seattle Tattoo survived and went on to flourish over the next three decades. In 1984, 20 years after being renamed, Seattle Tattoo Emporium moved to the western edge of Capitol Hill, an area where it still operates today. “We’ve always had a very large counterculture from the midcentury onward,” Kozloff says of Seattle, “and tattoo has been very integrated into that.”

As part of the First Nations section of “Body of Work,” LaPointe interviewed several members of the Tulalip tribe to get a better idea of the relationship between the Coast Salish people and tattoo.

“Not much information exists about whether we were a tattooed people pre-contact [with non-indigenous settlers], before the tribes assimilated,” she said, going on to talk about Ruth Shelton, an elder whom the Tulalip tribal members brought up in conversation. “She came from the mountains and she had a series of small, subtle markings on her wrists in triangular patterns. It struck me as profound that she chose to adorn herself as a reminder of who she is and where she came from.”

LaPointe wanted to create a space that showcases traditional adornment while also celebrating the ways that contemporary artists are using tattoo to revitalize and reclaim adornment, making it their own. “I think of it as permanent regalia,” she says, “the idea that we can take back our identities as Native people and tell a story with it.”

Known for its interactive spaces, MoPOP has had to make adjustments in the wake of COVID-19 and required social distancing — tactile details throughout the exhibition that encouraged visitors to touch and feel different displays have been altered or removed. Now, before entering the exhibit, museumgoers are given a sanitized stylus that they can use on screens throughout to complete activities such as a “What’s Your Tattoo Style” quiz. And if you’ve ever wondered what you’d look like with a tattoo but haven’t had the nerve to go under the needle, there’s an area where you can experiment by having a tattoo projected onto your skin — no commitment, or pain, required.

‘Body of Work: Tattoo Culture’

10 a.m.-6 p.m. Fridays-Sundays, through May 31, 2021; Museum of Pop Culture, 325 Fifth Ave. N. Seattle; $21-$30; mopop.org