Ink culture

Curator Jan Allen gives an advanced look at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre’s new exhibit Bernard Clark: Tattoo Portraits

From left to right: The Enigma at the Mini Mart, Mizuz Inkaholik and Detroit Portrait.
From left to right: The Enigma at the Mini Mart, Mizuz Inkaholik and Detroit Portrait.
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Curator Jan Allen didn’t hesitate when asked if she considers tattoos to be art.

“Oh absolutely, absolutely,” she said. “It’s an art form in all its traditions.”

As she took me around the Agnes Etherington Art Centre’s upcoming exhibit, Bernard Clark: Tattoo Portraits, we talked about reasons why photographer Bernard Clark and others are so fascinated by skin art.

“Part of that is people want to beautify themselves, partly tattoos also memorialize memories or associations with events,” she said. “For others, they want to transform themselves from the outside.”

For Clark, his fascination with tattoos started when he spent two weeks in Samoa, documenting the processes and patterns of traditional tattoo artists.

“[Clark’s photographs] are not only influenced by pop culture, but also by very deep traditions of bodily decoration,” Allen said.

The photographs in Tattoo Portraits feature heavily tattooed subjects, with everything from facial tattoos to sleeves. Most startling is The Enigma at the Mini Mart, a portrait of The Enigma, an internationally known figure whose puzzle tattoo covers his entire body, including his face.

Clark, an award-winning commercial photographer, has exhibited as part of group shows at the Agnes gallery before — he has a piece in the current exhibit Adornment. But Tattoo Portraits, the gallery’s first show of 2012, is his first solo stint at a public institution.

Different from some of Clark’s other work, the subject is not the sole focus. Each piece is made up of two photographs: a portrait and a landscape. Clark took the tattooed portraits and inserted them into new settings like cornfields and abandoned industrial sites.

“He’s really interested in ways in which we the viewers will experience and project into that image ourselves, so there’s a kind of layering of experience there which I think is quite interesting,” Allen said. “What we see here and an end product is the artist’s imagination at work.”

The portraits were taken between 2008 and 2010. “When he takes [the portraits] he goes to [tattoo] conventions so he’s shooting these in studios in very banal hotel rooms or in a convention hall or even on the street — so with very plain backdrops,” Allen said. “So for him he started to really imagine these characters in different settings.”

Allen points out the range of emotion achieved in Clark’s work.

“Some of them are very playful, sort of funky or humorous, some of them are very pensive, and some of them are somewhat dark,” Allen said. “Aesthetically, it’s sort of an unlikely image, one that suggests a narrative.”

Allen recognizes Clark is not the only one obsessed with ink culture. She goes as far as to say that it’s become a growing global phenomenon.

“I’ve certainly noticed over the years more and more students with tattoos and I know there’s an interest and fascination with that culture, and rightly so,” she said. “It’s also moved so much into the mainstream in terms of fashion and celebrity culture that this has influenced the way people think.

“That’s something that we feel this body of work really reflects and responds to.”

Bernard Clark: Tattoo Portraits opens on Saturday at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre and will run until Apr. 15.

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