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Body Art

Body Art
Part 1 in a series on our new publication on tattoos in the Library collection
11 December 2013

It would appear that Australia is currently experiencing a body art ‘renaissance’, with tattoos and other forms of body modification moving steadily away from the terrain of deviants and further into the mainstream. My name is Kate Ross and I have been lucky enough to conduct the picture research for a stunning new book released by NLA Publishing called Body Art, written by Deborah Hill. Amidst this increased interest and practice of many different kinds of temporary and permanent body modification and adornment, it has been particularly fascinating to delve into the National Library’s collections to discover visual records of body art in the past and today taken by Australians and across Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific.

Rennie Ellis, Tattoos, New York, 1976, silver gelatin and selenium-toned photograph, Courtesy Rennie Ellis Archive, nla.pic-vn4082387
Two Punk Rock Girls looking at camera with strong makeup, piercings, tattoos
Martin Philbey, Two Punk Rock Girls at the Livid Music Festival, Brisbane, Queensland, 2000. colour digital photograph, nla.pic-vn4389487

My research led me through a broad array of media, including historical travellers’ illustrations, works on canvas, collectible postcards, first fleet recordings of Indigenous ceremonial body painting and scarring, glass lantern slides and negatives taken in Papua New Guinea by Frank Hurley, performing arts documentation as well as studio and contemporary documentary photography taken on the streets, in workplaces and during ceremonies.

Five Half-Length Portraits of Aborigines in various poses illustrating their back and chest tattoos
Port Jackson Painter, Five Half-Length Portraits of Aborigines, c. 1790, nla.pic-an5576843
seated portrait of maori man, dressed formally showing elaborate facial tattoos
Gottfried Lindauer’s eloquent oil painting of Tomika Te Mutu, paramount chief of the Ngāiterangi Tribe from the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand, nla.pic-an2282975
Portrait photo of Papuan man with elaborate headdress and nose piercing.
Frank Hurley’s glass lantern slide, The Nose Adornment Adopted by a Courting Papuan, between 1910 and 1962, nla.pic-an23381985

I explored the visual records of many different practices of body modification and ceremonial adornment in indigenous communities in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. It was also a revelation to realise how large a part these southern lands played in introducing tattooing to northern explorers in the Eighteenth Century. For instance, most Londoners’ first experiences with tattoos were when William Dampier brought back a ‘tattooed prince’ from the Philippine island of Meangis and Polynesian tattoos became popular souvenirs with English sailors on Captain James Cook’s Endeavour, during a voyage that took in Tahiti and New Zealand.

portrait photo of barechested man displaying his tattoos
An albumen photoprint published between 1888 and 1899 in Detroit, Michigan of Fred Melbournia, Australian Tattooed Man, nla.pic-an21731878
portrait photo of barechested lady with arms crossed, displaying her tattoos.
Wallona Aritta (Tattooed Lady), 1900s, collotype postcard, Courtesy State Library of Victoria, P.351/PC.2

By the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, tattoos continued to enthral. Collectible postcards and photoprints such as Wallona Aritta and Fred Melbournia were circulated in Australia, America and the UK. Aritta, the ‘beautifully tattooed girl’ was well-known for exhibiting her tattoos.

Bringing these often powerful images together, it became clear that the meanings behind body art are as varied as the individuals who wear them. Body adornments and modifications are rarely applied without a story for the wearer and even more rarely do they go without eliciting a response.

Grab your own copy of Body Art!
Keep an eye out for part 2 about the our wonderful - and brave - Library staff who modeled their tattoos for an inhouse photography shoot!

From Hurley to hipsters, moko to mainstream, this is book a rich look at getting inked. Hope it will inspire more tattoo art.