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The art of the tattoo heads to the home of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth

a photo of a wall of plastic forearms and hands each tattooed with different designs

100 Hands by Luke Hayes (detail). Courtesy National Maritime Museum Cornwall

The popular touring exhibition exploring the art of the tattoo finds a spiritual home at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth

From ruffians to royalty, sailors to socialites and pilgrims to punks, tattoos have been etched into the bodies of the British for centuries. Today it’s thought a fifth of the UK population, almost 12 million people, now have at least one tattoo. Narrow it down to people under the age of 25 and the percentage soars.

It’s this prolonged journey, from the roots of tattooing in the UK to its present day popularity, that is explored in Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed, at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard this summer.

Given the tradition of sailors getting inked on their many voyages across the globe, it’s a fitting location for this popular exhibition which has been touring the UK since its launch at the National Maritime Museum of Cornwall in 2017.

During its berth in Portsmouth, the exhibition expands to explore the significance and traditions of tattoos within the Royal Navy – as the museum explains, “for sailors, tattoos mapped journeys on the sea and through life, they are a walking biography on the body, symbolising where one had travelled, one’s job and who one loves.”

a photo of a wooden painted board advertising tattooing

Into You, Alex B memorabilia. Photo by Paul Abbitt.

a photo of a room installation featuring tattoo designs

Jessie Knight archive courtesy of Neil Hopkins Thomas. Photo Paul Abbitt

a photo of a plastic torso with nautical tattoo designs

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

Curator Alice Roberts Pratt, herself a devotee of the art of body adornment, has been working with Navy veterans to uncover their personal stories of tattoos and the interactive exhibition also encourages visitors to share their own stories from the tattoo parlour.

Accompanying and encouraging these narratives is an array of over 400 original artworks, photographs and historic artefacts including the impressive ‘100 Hands’ project, curated by Alice Snape of Things and Ink magazine, which features 100 silicone arms, each tattooed with an original design by top artists from across the UK.

The exhibition is the largest gathering of real objects and original tattoo artwork ever assembled in the United Kingdom, and for co-curator Dr Matt Lodder, who is a lecturer in Contemporary Art History and Director of American Studies at the University of Essex, it’s a chance to bring the world of academia, museums and the private, hidden world of tattooing together for the first time.

“Whilst British and global museums have had a longstanding interest in Western tattooing, none have ever managed to fully combine serious academic research with access to the vast but hidden troves of tattoo ephemera kept closely guarded in private collections,” says Lodder, who worked with Stuart Slade and Derryth Ridge of The National Maritime Museum Cornwall and Alice Snape to put the show together.

“In this exhibition, we have finally been able to match the most current and cutting-edge research on British tattoo history – which challenges all the most deeply-held perceptions about the practice, its origins, its extent, and its reception – with unparalleled access to the true custodians of tattooing’s history: the artists and their families who have cared for these objects and their stories over decades.”

a photo of three plastic arms with tattoo designs on them

100 Hands (detail) by Luke Hayes. Courtesy NMMC

a photo of comic books and other designs in a museum display

Detail from the Jessie Knight archive courtesy of Neil Hopkins Thomas. Photo by Luke Hayes.

a photo of a tattooed arm with Edwardian man and mermaid design

Mermaid of Zennor by Gemma B. Photo by Paul Abbit.

The remarkable collections on show include those belonging to Willie Robinson, Jimmy Skuse, and Paul ‘Rambo’ Ramsbottom, whose tattooing ephemera provides a rare opportunity for aficionados and dabblers alike to see original artwork and artefacts.

Also revealed are the previously unseen private archives relating to Britain’s pioneering female tattoo artist, Jessie Knight.

“Knight’s life as a gun wielding circus performer turned tattooist is the stuff of legend”

Born in 1904 to a sailor father, Knight’s life as a gun wielding circus performer turned tattooist is the stuff of legend, and although she sometimes struggled in the macho world of the tattoo parlour in the post war period, the exhibition brings her innovative yet classic designs to the public for the first time.

But as well as perusing hundreds of tattoo designs, visitors get a history lesson: while the word tattoo may have come into the English language following Captain Cook’s voyage, this was not the start of the story of British tattooing.

a photo of a tattoo gun and other related artefacts

Jessie Knight archive (detail). Courtesy of Neil Hopkins. Photo by Luke Hayes.

a photo of sghowing seven plastic arms with tattoo designs on them

100 Hands (detail). By Luke Hayes, courtesy of Luke Hayes.

a photo of a recreated tattoo studio

A recreation of the studio of tattooist Lal Hardy by Luke Hayes. Courtesy NMMC.

Apart from the tattoos of Ancient Britons described by the Romans, the modern boom in tattooing has its roots in the seventeenth century when wealthy pilgrims would visit the Holy Land and return with elaborate and expensive Christian-themed tattoos to rival anything adorning the bodies of today’s Premiership footballers.

For those in search of similar tattoo inspiration, beyond the drawings, designs and 100 tattooed hands, ‘hyper realistic’ body sculptures from three tattoo artists working in three very different tattoo traditions, show the innovative work of contemporary tattooing.

“Personal stories, social histories, art and a whole bucket load of ideas to take with you the tattoo parlour”

Tihoti Faara Barff, a Hawaiian-based tattooist from the island of Tahaa in Tahiti creates tattoos that celebrate the modern revival of Tahitian tattooing; Matt Houston’s commission is a heroic celebration of the sailor tattoo; and Aimée Cornwell, a rising star in the tattoo world, who illustrates how tattooing is breaking down different artistic boundaries with her own form of fantasia.

Personal stories, social histories, art and a whole bucket load of ideas to take with you the tattoo parlour, British Tattoo Art Revealed manages to lift the lid on what Lodder describes as “a magical, romantic, exciting and often-misunderstood art-form”.

“We hope that our exhibition will communicate some of that magic to visitors.”

a head and shoulders photo of a heavily tattooed man with a bone through his nose

One of the ‘hyper-real’ body sculptures: The Great Omi. Photo by Luke Hayes courtesy of NMMC.

Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed runs at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard from June 30 2018 to January 6 2019. For tickets and events see nmmc.co.uk/tattoo-british-tattoo-art-revealed/


The National Museum of the Royal Navy, in Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard, is one of Britain’s oldest maritime museums. The Museum’s mission is to preserve and present the history of the 'Fleet' - the ships and the men and women who manned them. The National Museum of the Royal Navy is…


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