No one will ever know her name, but everyone will remember her tattoo.
The thought keeps nagging. She’s an arm, a right arm. And she has a tattoo on her wrist.
Who knows if this was her only tattoo? Her body may have been covered with intricate designs similar to those on the bodies in Lars Krutak’s photographs on the surrounding gallery walls.
But the people in those photos have full bodies and faces recognizable to those who know them.
Not her. The tattoo is all that’s left to her identity.
Which is the point of this exhibit as it explores the meaning of tattoos through history and culture. Read the labels in the LSU Student Union Gallery, and it’s clear above all else that tattoos are about personal identity.
They may symbolize association with religions or even crime rings, but in the end, tattoos symbolize who individuals choose to be.
And they’re gathered in this exhibit, “Ancient Marks: The Sacred Origins of Tattoos and Body Marking,” which runs through Sunday.
Krutak’s photographs are the dominant feature in this show. His photos are joined by those of work by New Orleans tattoo artists Ed Dieringer of Electric Ladyland Tattoos, Donn Davis and Theophile Bourgeois of Tattooagogo and Adam Montegut of Hell or High Water.
It’s interesting to note how the label next to the photo of Dieringer’s intricate tattoo portrait of a lady explains Dieringer’s belief in establishing a relationship between artist and client.
“The people are as important as the tattoo, itself,” he said.
True. Tattooing is probably one of the most personal art forms, a permanent picture in the skin. So, it should be meaningful.
Which leads to another thought. How meaningful was the tattoo on the woman’s wrist? Its meaning has compounded through the years, because it’s now how people see her.
It’s how visitors to this exhibit will view her when wandering into the center of the gallery and suddenly discovering that they’re staring at a mummified human arm under glass.
It’s small, almost childllike. But it’s been determined to have belonged to a woman who lived between 1100 B.C. and 1400 B.C. in what is now modern-day Peru.
She lived in ancient times, but her tattoo survives.
The arm is on loan from the personal collection of a Tulane University professor. And though there are plenty of students walking past the gallery who could stand in as live tattooed examples for this exhibit, the woman’s mummified arm has a way of saying more.
Sure, the students have their own style and reasons for their markings, as do the people in Krutak’s photographs. But the woman’s arm represents something more.
Because suddenly the word “ancient” in the title doesn’t seem so foreign, closing the gulf between past and present.
For this may be a digital age, where communication is instant, yet people haven’t really changed. Not so much, anyway as they establish their identities through markings on their bodies.
Krutak’s photos illustrate how this tradition continues. Maybe for different reasons, but it continues.
Krutak traveled to LSU earlier in the month for a lecture in conjunction with the exhibit. Krutak is an anthropologist probably best known as host of the Discovery Channel’s “Tattoo Hunter.”
His photos in “Ancient Marks: The Sacred Origins of Tattoos and Body Marking” explore the tradition of body modification that has existed for centuries from tribal societies in the Eastern Hemisphere to urban enclaves in the West, conveying the social, symbolic, and aesthetic significance of body modification.
The photos have appeared in Krutak’s books, and it’s fascinating to study how tattoos work with the human psyche.
And among the many symbols here, one photo seems to stand out among the others, that of a young woman. Krutak has taken a photo of her nude body from behind as she lounges casually in an open space.
Her body is perfect by modern standards. She could easily be a model walking the runways of Paris or on the cover of Vogue.
But her back, from shoulders to buttocks, is covered with an intricate, continuous design signifying her affiliation with a Japanese organized crime ring.
The photo’s label explains that she is a mistress to a member of the crime ring, and the tattoo is a symbol of her loyalty. And now it’s forever her identity.
Still, one can’t help wondering, what if she ever wants out?
In the end, she wears the markings of her personal choice.
As did the woman whose arm is under glass. She is gone.
But her tattoo is still here.
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