British Tattoo Art Revealed

Torso by Matthew Houston. Photo by Paul Abbitt, courtesy of NMMC

From ruffians to royalty; from sailors to socialites; from pilgrims to punks: tattoos have been etched into bodies throughout British history.

Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery is hosting over 400 original artworks, photographs and historic artefacts, in a major new touring exhibition; Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed, curated by National Maritime Museum Cornwall. Open at Tullie House from Saturday 17 October 2020 until Saturday 16 January 2021, this exhibition offers a genuinely ground-breaking and comprehensive history of British tattooing.

The exhibition features cutting-edge designers, leading academics and major private collectors to tell a story that challenges long-standing myths and preconceptions about tattooing when it comes to class, gender and age. At the same time, it gives a voice to and celebrates the astonishingly rich artistic heritage of tattooing as an art form in the UK.

100 Hands. Photo by Luke Hayes, courtesy of NMMC

Showcasing the work of major tattoo artists from George Burchett, via the Bristol Tattoo Club, to Alex Binnie and Lal Hardy, this is the largest gathering of real objects and original tattoo artwork ever assembled in the United Kingdom. The exhibition features items from three of the most important private collections of tattoo material in Britain, belonging to Willy Robinson, Jimmie Skuse and Paul ‘Rambo’ Ramsbottom, providing a rare opportunity to display original artwork and artefacts not otherwise on public display. The exhibition also delves into previously unseen private archives that reveal hidden histories, including the incredible real story of Britain’s pioneering female tattoo artist, Jessie Knight.

Tullie House has worked with people across Cumbria to create a new documentary, Talking Tattoos, especially for the display at the museum. Members of the public were invited to contribute images of their body art and video footage, telling the tale behind their tats. This video piece showcases the artwork, celebrates the diversity, and shares the stories behind Cumbria’s tattoos.

It is estimated that about one in five of the UK population is tattooed and this figure rises to one in three for young adults. And yet, whilst the visibility of tattooing in contemporary culture may feel like something new, tattoos and tattoo art have always held a significant place in Britain’s history and historical imagination.

The exhibition explores this history in depth and shows that while the word tattoo may have come into the English language following Captain Cook’s voyages, this was not the start of the story of British tattooing. While showcasing the rich maritime heritage of tattoos, the exhibition also shows how people from all areas of society have always been tattooed. From ruffians to royalty; from sailors to socialites; from pilgrims to punks: tattoos have been etched into bodies throughout British history.

NMMC Director Richard Doughty said: “We are enormously proud of this ground-breaking and award-winning exhibition, and the fact that we were able to turn it into a national touring programme that reached new and very diverse audiences across the country.  After three years, we are especially delighted to finish the tour at Tullie House, which is the last chance to see this unique collection of material in one place.”

Charli Summers, Programme Manager, Tullie House said: “We are delighted to be working with National Maritime Museum Cornwall to host Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed, which features unique collaborations between national organisations, collectors, artists and leading academics. The exhibition is truly one of a kind; entertaining, challenging, beautiful, and we are thrilled to provide a platform for this rich and varied art form. We have also enjoyed working with people across Cumbria to bring local tattoo stories into the exhibition by creating the Talking Tattoos documentary.”

Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed has been curated by National Maritime Museum Cornwall

Normal admission charges apply.

Arts – Cumbria Crack