Tattoos at the Museum: Paris’ Musée du quai Branly reconciles art & ethnology

From Samoan ritual to modern tattoo trends

MyScienceWork met with Sébastien Galliot, a specialist of traditional tattooing practices in Samoa, where he spent 2 years studying the work of the greatest tattoo masters for his PhD in ethnology. Now a researcher at the Centre for Research and Documentation on Oceania, he served as the scientific advisor to the exhibit Tattooists, Tattooed, currently showing at the musée du Quai Branly in Paris, through 18 October 2015.

MyScienceWork met with Sébastien Galliot, a specialist of traditional tattooing practices in Samoa, where he spent two years studying the work of the greatest tattoo masters for his PhD in ethnology. Now a researcher at the Centre for Research and Documentation on Oceania, he has served as scientific advisor to the exhibit Tattooists, Tattooed, currently showing at the musée du Quai Branly in Paris, through 18 October 2015. 

This article was originally published in French: Tatouages au quai Branly : le musée réconcilie l'art et l'ethnologie. It was translated to English by Abby Tabor.

Sébastien Galliot with a Samoan tattoo

Mystical or political, it is profoundly human. It is the aesthetic mutilation of a body, marked and beautiful. The Musée du quai Branly, Paris’ museum for the arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and America, has devoted an exhibit to it: Tattooists, Tattooed. Tattoos bear tangible witness to the magic that inhabits our minds and builds our communities. Longer lasting than a uniform, more radical than a badge, the tattoo is a visible sign of hierarchy, of political affiliation, of social belonging. Representing designs or text, they are markers of community and, as such, tattoos are a subject of study by anthropologists. Tattoos are also in fashion: according to a 2012 Harris poll, 38% of US adults aged 30-39 are tattooed.

The practice has often been forbidden: by Christian missionaries, for instance, or by Mao in China. In some societies, tattooing remained confined to certain casts, organizations or marginals: Chinese nobles, soldiers of all stripes, Russian thugs, Mexican prisoners, American sideshow freaks – all were tattooed. There are also places in the world where the tattoo is an element of daily life as natural as an umbrella in London or the Athenian toga. This is the case for Samoa, where the skin is marked to signify the passage of worthy young men into adulthood, as well as their submission to the chief of the tribe. 

Tattoos on the Samoan islands: a rite of passage

On this Polynesian archipelago, tattooing, as described at the end of the 19th century, was standard and obligatory: “Everyone was tattooed in Samoa. There, tattoos were a mark of maturity, of courage,” explains Sébastien Galliot, a researcher at the Centre for Research and Documentation on Oceania and scientific adviser of the exhibition. “The chief of the village paid for the tattooing of his son, who would, thus, become leader of the young men. It was a real political strategy that consisted of creating a cohort of young adults in the service of the chiefdom.” Samoan tattooing was a ritual act, an ordeal of several days for the subject, for whom patience was a necessary quality. (See photo opposite, “Tattooing of the navel. Tufuga ta pe’a (tattooist): Sua Suluape Alaivaa », photo by S. Galliot, coll. S. Galliot, 2005). These young, tattooed men were exemplary: as much in the accomplishment of ceremonial acts as in combat, they were the representatives of their community. 

The practice is still present and intact in Samoan society, although not all young Samoans are tattooed today. The savoir-faire is the same, and the symbolism, too: families will only finance the traditional tattooing of young people who merit it. The adoption of Christianity (radically opposed to ritual tattoos) on the archipelago did, however, change the rules to the point that a village or a family might be influenced, in turns, by the proximity of a tattooer or a church. But the practice endures and elite Samoans are reviving the tattoo, bearing it all the way into the world’s embassies. For Samoans, tattoos are a national treasure. “Samoa is not exactly the cradle of tattooing, which was practiced well before, in Melanesia, in particular,” Sébastien Galliot makes clear. “On the other hand, if we consider the archipelago in the context of the current phenomenon of renewal and reappropriation of the tattoo by their Polynesian neighbors, the Samoan islands have a central role. Anyone who wants to learn the technique must turn to the Samoan masters, who hold the most specialized knowledge.”

It is not only a question of technical skills and familiarity with the tools, there is also a philosophy that tattoo artists in search of authenticity come to Samoa to find. “Since they never stopped the practice of ritual tattooing, there is strong symbolic capital that foreigners come looking for in Samoa, a legitimacy.” Tattooers are as much artisans as artists and depart for the Samoan islands to be trained, like a young painter would go learn at Picasso’s side.

Tattoo carried out on a silicone cast by Leo Zulueta (Photo © musée du quai Branly/Thomas Duval)


Resurgence of “tribal” culture in the West

The exhibit Tattooists, Tattooed, therefore, aims to show tattoos and tattoo artists through the prism of art, and not only ethnology. Tattooers of Polynesia, Japan, Thailand played a vital role in the birth of a globalized culture of tattoos, with its trends and its followers. Among the actors of this culture steeped in “the underground” displayed at the Quai Branly museum is Leo Zulueta. Along with his partner-in-crime Don Ed Hardy (known especially for his clothing line), Zulueta was one of the main instigators of the adoption of tribal and ethnic motifs in the US in the 1980s, with their magazine, Tattootime. In search of inspiration, with the desire to explore and to enrich themselves alongside the masters in possession of the ancestral traditions, the two Americans left to meet these exotic tattooers, to observe and to obtain traditional tools. “They began conducting amateur ethnology, with trips to Borneo and Samoa,” explains Sébastien Galliot. “Leo Zulueta and Ed Hardy supported the idea that there were highly developed tattoo cultures outside of the West, which could provide inspiration to create an avant-garde in the world of Euro-American tattoos, to escape the traditional American themes, which, at the time, were closely tied to the sideshow aesthetic or to military culture.”

Western tattoo artists began to form connections with their peers elsewhere in the world and to draw inspiration from their work. For the researcher, the articles published in Tattootime, riddled with omissions and frequently distorted by the language barrier, are not sufficiently rigorous to have real scientific value. For this, they would have needed to spend more time in contact with the tattooers and the tattooed, to come within the continuity of documentation that already existed on the practices and the aesthetics of tattoos. But the encounters held very high artistic value: “Zulueta and Hardy understood that great artists existed outside of the United States. They introduced a sort of primitivism and orientalism into tattooing.” For this reason, these master artists are the most respected in the tattoo community.

Tattoo on a silicone cast, by Horiyoshi III
(Photo © musée du quai Branly/Thomas Duval)


 Bringing tattooed masterpieces to life

At the Quai Branly museum, the emphasis is on exceptional pieces, carried out by the biggest names in tattooing: the French Tin-Tin, artistic advisor of the exhibit and president of the national tattoo artists’ union, the Swiss Filip Leu, Xed Lehead, Jack Rudy, Horiyoshi III, Mark Kopua, Chimé...  The real highlight of the exhibit is the silicone torsos, arms and legs that were sent to the far reaches of the globe so that these tattoo artists—among the most renowned—could perform their art in a manner as authentic as the result is faithful to the real thing: a tattoo must be appreciated as much for the way it fits the body’s volumed as for its colors and shapes. The material is also an achievement: supple enough for the technique to be carried out under realistic conditions, imitating the elasticity of the skin, without letting the pigments fade and the tattoo disappear. “We have 13 tattoo artists, from among the greatest in the world, who played the game. These are people who sometimes have a one- or two-year waiting list who stopped working on clients to contribute to this exhibit,” adds Sébastien Galliot. The exhibit also gathers rare pieces, like an enormous, decorated tattoo trunk, which was lugged around the US, from one city to another, at the beginning of the 20th century, or old tools of the trade, an ethnologist’s treasure. Extracts of films, portraits, canvases, texts and the famous silicone limbs— aided by a simple and elegant design, the quality of the project lies particularly in its message: the tattoo is a rich, living art with a complex history and status both global and modern.


To Find Out More:

Tattoo: a multifaceted medium of communication

A negotiated rebellion : conformity and resistance in women's tattooing practices

The exhibit at the Musée du quai Branly displays photos of Chaoui women (an ethnicity originally from the mountainous region of Aurès region of Algeria):

Portrait of an Algerian woman © Marc Garanger

Good news: we found an article published on the subject in 1942 (in French), thanks to MyScienceWork’s database. (The article is available in its entirety on the Persée platform.)