Immigration Museum inks a new direction

Visitors viewing Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World. Photo credit: Ben Healley

Please note: Images in this article were taken before current COVID-19 safety measures were in place.

Take a tattoo trip around the world from Samoa to Japan and back to Melbourne at the Immigration Museum’s latest show.

Expanding its focus of the past 20 years to reach wider audiences, a multi-floor exhibition at the Immigration Museum on Flinders Street may surprise you.

It’s not about travellers making their way to Australia to start a new life. Rather, it’s about tattoos.

This approach is very much in keeping with the museum’s extended direction for its temporary exhibitions: moving away from stories exclusively about immigration to exploring the idea of human connection, especially as a global counterpoint to intolerance and racism. And this show, ‘Our Bodies, Our Voices, Our Marks’ explores human connection through tattoos. Around the globe and throughout history.

"The world’s changing rapidly and the Immigration Museum is changing along with it," says Immigration Museum’s General Manager, Rohini Kappadath. "To remain relevant, we need to engage new audiences, and look to the future. We did a lot of consultation in the past 18 months with government bodies and members of our community and we arrived together at a new vision: people connected to a shared humanity, embracing our diversity for a just future."

The plan for this show is to build on the success of the theme uncovered during last year’s LOVE exhibition: human connection. That show drew record-breaking numbers of visitors and the current tattoo-heavy exhibition may do it all over again.

Potrait shot of Kip FulbeckOn one floor, 'Perseverance' displays the Japanese tattoo work of Santa Barbara-based photographer and University of California art professor, Kip Fulbeck, whose own back and arms are tattooed in the distinctive Japanese artistic style. In Japan, due to the stigma associated with the country’s mafia, the yakuza, individuals with tattoos – such as Kip – aren’t always welcomed in public bathhouses or even gyms.

Yet Japanese tattoos have a rich, symbolic tradition and continue to have a major influence on international modern tattoo culture. "People will see some of the best work in the world by contemporary Japanese tattoo masters," explains Kip, including full body tattoos that have taken years to complete and require extraordinary stamina due to the pain levels involved.

Visitors will also, says Kip, "see Japanese tattooing as a vibrant, thriving art form, with visible roots and similarities to classic Japanese woodblock printing." Such printing was popular during the early 19th century and Kip wants viewers to leave the exhibition with an understanding of the mastery of Japanese tattooing and be inspired by the art form.

Potrait shot of Stanislava PinchukOffering local and contemporary perspectives on tattooing and identity, another installation ‘Documenting the Body: Curated by Stanislava Pinchuk’, is dispersed throughout all three levels of the museum.

'Documenting the Body' depicts some of the intricate tattoos of Ukraine-born artist Stanislava Pinchuk – also known as Miso – who divides her time between Melbourne and Tokyo. Famously, she only tattoos friends, or friends of friends, and doesn’t accept monetary payment for her work, only trade. One friend she has inked is acclaimed English indie-rock singer, Florence Welch. Away from her tattoos, the talented 31-year old artist’s delicate drawings and designs have also been commissioned by Nike, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co. as well as an album cover for New Zealand singer, Lorde.

"I’m hoping ‘Documenting the Body’ stretches ideas of what it means to be tattooed and I’d love for viewers to particularly celebrate the tattooing of women, by other women," says Stanislava. "I don’t think that’s something we talk about often enough, and honour enough, in the history of women’s visual languages. I've always seen tattooing as one of the most magic drawing practices that humans have. Tattoos can cast us outside of society, or mark us as belonging – or both. But ultimately they are a way to transform our bodies and connect to something larger and dream, which is such a fundamental part of what makes us all human."

Alongside this is ‘Tatau: Marks of Polynesia’, exploring how inking of the face and body is a 2000-year-old cornerstone of Samoan culture, representing rank and cultural traditions through the ages.

If you work in Melbourne, take a trip to the Immigration Museum during lunchtime. And if you live in a regional area or in the suburbs, be sure to stop by the exhibition next time you’re in the city. Just like a tattoo, the experience will stay with you for a long time.

Our Bodies, Our Voices, Our Marks is on until early 2020 at the Immigration Museum.