Beauty and the beasts

18th November 2005 at 00:00
Skin Deep: a history of tattooing

Aberdeen Maritime Museum

December 3-March 5

When Captain James Cook returned to England in 1774 after his first voyage to the South Pacific on HMS Endeavour, he brought with him Omai, a tattooed man from Tahiti.

Omai sat for a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (the painting was sold at auction in 2001 for more than pound;10 million), he was introduced to King George III and he attended the state opening of Parliament, before returning to Tahiti with Cook in 1776.

Cook also brought back tattooing implements and these are included in an exhibition at Aberdeen Maritime Museum that explores the development and diversity of tattooing from the time of Cook's first encounters.

Skin Deep, which runs for three months from December 3, is the first Scottish showing of an exhibition that originated at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in 2002. Response to it was so great, and its appeal so wide, that the curators decided to tour the show. It was launched in its present form this year.

John Edwards, curator of Aberdeen Maritime Museum, says: "We are delighted to be able to bring Skin Deep here. One of the main focuses of the exhibition is the adoption of tattooing by sailors, starting in the 1700s, so it's very appropriate for us."

In fact, tattooing existed long before the 1700s. In the 5th century BC it was used as a way of smuggling secret messages across enemy lines in times of war. And in 1991, the 5,000-year-old frozen body of a Bronze Age hunter was uncovered in a glacier and found to have several tattoos, including a cross on the inside of his left knee.

Winston Churchill's mother had a snake tattooed on her wrist; an American man has more than 1,000 Disney characters tattooed on his body, including 101 dalmatians; but the world's most tattooed person is a Scotsman. Tom Leppard, from Skye, has 99.9 per cent of his body covered in a leopard skin pattern.

As well as historic portraits and illustrations of tattooed people and tattooing, Skin Deep features 200-year-old implements, an electric tattooing machine from the 1940s and other intriguing - and sometimes gruesome - items relating to the art. An album of photographs shows the kinds of tattoos that ordinary folk have these days, demonstrating tattooing as a statement of identity and fashion in contemporary society.

Aberdeen Maritime Museum's education officer, Lynsey Keenan, tel 01224 337700

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