Summer 2020: Karly Etz

Skin Inscriptions: The Tattoo Medium in Contemporary Art

Department of Art History

Skin Inscriptions: The Tattoo Medium in Contemporary Art

Today, tattoos are commonplace in international biennials of art, art fairs, and exhibitions, and yet, the creation of tattoo-related art remains an understudied phenomenon within art historical scholarship. Historically, tattoos have fallen to the purview of anthropology, studied as visualizations of social interaction. However, the tattoo’s recent presence in museums and gallery spaces exemplifies the tattoo’s ability to offer unique points of entry into an array of pressing art historical concerns – namely, current debates surrounding cultural property, artistic agency, processes of identity creation, bodily autonomy, and a panoply of issues pertaining to curatorial and museological ethics, including the preservation and display of human remains. My dissertation, Skin Inscriptions: The Tattoo Medium in Contemporary Art approaches tattooing from this perspective and tests the discursive limitations of art history through a cross-cultural analysis of prominent trends in tattoo-related art objects. Through a series of five case studies, I interrogate the tattoo’s recent appearance within art spaces and examine the ways in which artists utilize both the social contexts of these objects and their connections to histories of disenfranchised peoples in order to produce meaning. In doing so, I offer a new take on this popular medium, one that focuses on the creation and display of individual objects and the critical conversations sparked by the introduction of this street medium into fine art spaces.