Field Museum explores tattoo art, history, logic, popularity

THOMAS DUVAL/MUSEÉ DU QUAI BRANLY – JACQUES CHIRAC PHOTO

More people are adding an indelible mark on their life, based on a process that is thousands of years old.

When asked to write about tattoos during my first newspaper job around 1980, it was hard to find anybody besides military vets and bikers to interview. Now nearly one-half of Americans who are 18 to 29 years old have at least one tattoo, and the business of tattooing is a $1.65 billion industry in the U.S.

Roughly three of 10 of us have a tattoo, compared to two of 10 in 2012. Those who get one tattoo are 69 percent likely to get a second, or more.

Stats come from The Harris Poll and Pew Research Center. Where to get a tattoo? Think discreet, no-show locations to full-body mural making, done in neighborhood tattoo parlors to Chicago’s Field Museum.

The Field Museum? “Tattoo,” a major exhibition that stays up until April 30, includes a shop with tattoo artists at work from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 11, 12, 18 and 19; March 25 and 26; and April 8, 9, 29 and 30. Although all appointments are booked, an exhibit ticket lets you watch tattooing as it happens.

One person’s need to express individuality is another’s sign of rebellion or spiritual practice. We memorialize an event, person or rite of passage with tattoos. We add them as body art or a line of script that sums up a philosophy of life.

Tribal tattoos in foreign lands are symbols of family or connection, and some add hopes for power, protection and good luck. “Tats” also have historically been associated with public punishment, humiliation and the loss of identity. That includes serial numbers on the forearms of prisoners in Nazi camps.

So this is the place to learn about it all, the facial tattoos of Maori chiefs in New Zealand and the family crests of local wildlife – hummingbirds to wolves – that are a part of Native American heritage for the Haida in the Pacific Northwest of this country.

An Illinois guy – Milton Zeis, who learned to tattoo at circuses – gets credit for starting the first international tattoo club. He was a professional clown, Chicago Art Institute graduate and commercial artist whose Zeis School of Tattooing was a 20-lesson course that students could learn at home. He died in 1972.

You’ll be introduced to tattooing’s passionate pioneers, including Ohio native Augustus “Gus” Wagner, who had 264 tattoos on his body by 1902. He promoted himself as “the most artistically marked up man in America.”

A 1976 international tattooing convention in Texas gets credit for leading a global resurgence in tattooing, but advancements in tattoo equipment certainly didn’t hurt the mission. Although tattooing began more than 5,000 years ago, the first electric tattoo machine was not patented until 1891.

If you think tattooing looks painful, look for enlightenment in explanations about the levels of brutuality associated with permanent pigmentation long ago. What used to be deemed as painfully necessary is a walking canvas for brilliant art today.

“A tattoo is a wound that creates living artwork” is one artist’s perspective about what is possible and pursued.

“I want to track my life,” one full bodysuit wearer says, on video, “so when I die, I have everything with me.”

The museum encourages people with tattoos to share the backstory of their markings on Twitter, using #TattooFM as a hashtag. One example: “All 15 of my #tattoos reflect my heritage and hobbies,” writes Kathy Poland, who posts a photo that shows off a knife tattoo along the side of her hand. She is a chef who operates A Taste of the Philippines mobile restaurant in Denver.

“Tattoo” was developed by the museé du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, a Paris museum that specializes in indigenous art. An all-access pass to the Field Museum includes admission to the exhibit. The cost is $36 ($31 for students/senior citizens, $25 for children). 312-922-9410

What’s for sale at the museum store, and online? Temporary tattoos, of course, plus “Tattooed Lady” neckties, “Sailor Jerry” tattoo stencils and much more, baby bibs to skull-and-crossbones magnets.

Rick’s 15th International Tattoo Convention is Feb. 10-12 at the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center, 2040 Airport Dr., Green Bay. Admission is $20, and about 60 tattoo artists are listed as attending. The event’s tattoo contests are wide-ranging, small black and grey tattoos to arm or leg sleeves, chest and back pieces. “Rick” is tattoo artist Rick Harnowski of Green Bay. tattoosbyrick.com, 920-499-7425

The eighth Chicago Tattoo Arts Convention happens March 17-19 at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, 5555 N. River Rd., Rosemont, Ill. Admission is $20 (free for ages under 12). A similar event is Sept. 15-17 at the Wisconsin Center, 400 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee. villainarts.com, 215-423-4780