The Art of Tattoing: the ROM’s Latest Exhibit

** This blog post contains images with nudity.**

On Victoria Day, Hannah and I made use of our memberships and paid a brief visit to the ROM to visit their new exhibit: Tattoos. Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art. The last exhibit we checked out was the Pompeii blockbuster in summer 2015, so we were quite intrigued by the alluring subject matter.

Rusty Fields depicted on a Porcelain Plate (© Amsterdam Tattoo Museum)

Tattoos shows the over 5,000 year long history of tattooing around the world and prior to entering we were warned about the risqué nature of the exhibit. After all we were to gaze upon nude bodies and their parts! Tattoos have various connotations, which change based on the culture we are talking about. For some, tattoos are used to express status, while for others, they have apotropaic aspects to keep evil at bay. It was this personal expression of someone’s identity, which really appealed to me and what I was looking forward to explore in the exhibit.

The Long, Long History of Tattooing

Sure enough, when we walked into the exhibit, we met a small ancient Egyptian figurine of a woman, spotting tattoos on her ankle. She actually stems from the ROM’s own collection and dates to the time before the Pyramids, ca. 4,000-3,000 BC. Normally, the figurine calls the Predynastic case in the Egypt & Nubia permanent gallery its home. Apart from this very early example, recent news mention a mummy from over 3,000 years ago, who has a tattoo of a wedjat-eye on her neck (1).

Figurine of a woman (910.92.7 – 4,000-3,000 BC © Royal Ontario Museum)

I have always asked myself, how persons could tattoo themselves, knowing it is permanent? In the exhibit, I came across a Japanese woman, who at first looked very ordinary, dressed casually and having long, black hair. Yet, in an interview playing on a tv screen, she spoke about the many, many tattoos all over her body, culminating with the removal of her hair revealing even more tattoos!  She spoke about, how she hides her tattoos, when she wears clothes and dons her wig. Yet, when she is naked, then she expresses her true self. This personal expression of her identity really moved me.

edison-tattoo-stencil-amsterdam tattoo museum
Electric stencil patent by Thomas Edison (1877 © Amsterdam Tattoo Museum)

The Work of Tattoo Artists and their Designs

Of course, the exhibit also featured the tools of the trade and the many techniques tattoo artists employ(ed) in their work. From an electric stencil pen that was first patented by famous inventor, Thomas Edison, in 1877 to a wooden panel of tattoo designs carried around by tattoo artists over 100 years ago, a great emphasis was placed on the various styles and skills of artists. The exhibit showed us drawings of designs made on canvas, which could wrap around an entire body of an individual or smaller designs of icons. Within the collection, some artists crafted designs on plastic moulds, so we witnessed whole arms on display. One example featured an arm, where the artist used an ink that would only be visible under UV-light.

Screen of a Tattoo Artists’ Repertoire (19th cent. – © Musée du Quai Branley)

Yet, the myriad designs continued to grip me. In one example, I saw Tutankhamun’s famous funerary mask adapted in Egyptianizing fashion with the Star of David on top. On the fellow’s left chest was depicted the head of Queen Elizabeth, while on the other breast the Pope greeted me. The person made his entire upper body the canvas and I would have loved to learn about the symbolism and choices behind his design.

Tattoo design with various icons (© Royal Ontario Museum)

Another featured a giant squid depicted on the back with the parts of the animal wrapped around the legs. The design, I am told, was for a surgeon, who could cover up his entire tattoo with his work uniform prior to surgery.

Tattoo design with a giant squid wrapping around the back (© Royal Ontario Museum)

East meets West, or does it?

Perhaps the most striking design is the work of the artist, Tin-Tin. Often inspired by Japanese designs, he maintains a somewhat realist aspect to his work. Nevertheless, his design on a silicone model of a naked woman is as perplexing as intriguing. Above the chest on the right side is depicted the face of an elder gentleman, laughing. Yet, when we look on the lady’s belly area, we can discern a dragon and some flowers drawn in Asian fashion – clearly inspired by Japanese equivalents. It really made me wonder as to what the symbolism or the choice of the subject matter is.

Silicone model design after tattoo artist Tin-Tin (© Royal Ontario Museum)

Overall, the exhibit was very educational and elucidated the very long history of tattoing around the world. It spoke of the various traditions as they exist/ed in the various cultures and really did let the objects speak for themselves. After all, our identities are all shaped by our own obsessions and own rituals.

The exhibit is located on the 4th floor at the Royal Ontario Museum and runs until September 5, 2016 – More Information.

Further Reading

In late March, Nigel Hunt posted a review of the exhibit for CBC News, which is available here: LINK.

Here are some resources on tattooing in ancient Egypt.

  • The standard overview of tattooing in Egypt was written by Robert S. Bianchi and published in Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body, edited by A. Rubin (1988). For more details on this publication, see WorldCat.
  • Geoffrey J. Tassie wrote an excellent overview of tattooing in ancient Egypt. It was published in Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 14 (2003):85-101 and is available here: LINK.
  • Marie Vandenbeusch, curator at the British Museum (BM) in London, wrote a blog post on tattooing in Egypt and the Sudan coinciding with the Ancient Lives exhibit, which was at the BM in 2014. The post is available here: LINK.


  1. This tattoo was identified by Anne Austin from Stanford University, who recently gave an enlightening talk at ARCE in Atlanta. For details on the discovery, see LINK.

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