Living Canvas

Great artistic movements begin in rebellion, and end up in museums. Along the way, there is typically an inflection point, a paradigm shift when the response they elicit changes from shock and outrage to "ummm... is this the only color it comes in?" Michael McCabe has tattoos on both arms down to his wrists; he has written about tattoos and been a tattoo artist for 20 years, during most of which time it was illegal in New York City. So he could appreciate how far the art has come, as he circulated among fashion models, socialites, art-world figures, bikers and interested dermatologists at the opening of "Body Art: Marks of Identity"--a new show at the American Museum of Natural History that may legitimize tattoos and nose rings the way the Armory Show of 1913 did for modern art.

On the one hand, McCabe has nostalgia for the days when tattoos were still the badge of the hip and the outlaw, not something a housewife might get to celebrate losing 20 pounds. On the other hand, he can remember back to the early 1980s, when if he met a woman at a party and he told her what he did, in the blink of an eye she'd be across the room talking to a nice, safe rock musician. Needless to say, nothing like that happened to him at the museum opening.

McCabe, as the show demonstrates, stands in a great tradition of body decoration, a feature of virtually every known society throughout history. The 15 to 20 square feet of skin on the typical body has been employed as the canvas for dragons, unicorns, flowers, Virgin Marys, pinup girls and fossil skeletons; it has been hacked up with decorative scars, branded with flame and pierced with feathers, bones and gold. Human flesh has been stretched over giant discs implanted in the ear lobe, bones have been compressed into dainty deformities by foot-binding or molded into the bizarre skull shape once favored by certain Pacific Coast Indians, marked by a forehead that slopes backward at the same angle as the nose. For that matter, bodies have been squeezed by corsets, pumped up by lifting weights, shaved by razors and highlighted by lipstick. It's an obvious point, although we tend to overlook it in our fascination with the exotic practices of Aborigines and Hells Angels, but as curator Enid Schildkrout observes, "Everybody does something to their bodies to communicate who they are. Even if just to comb their hair."

The show is precisely balanced between the gorgeous and the grotesque, sometimes in the same object. A golden eagle from an ancient Peruvian society is beautiful, but our feelings toward it are colored by the knowledge that it served as a nose ornament. A hollow cylinder of obsidian, about the size and shape of a yo-yo, becomes invested with a sinister magic when you realize that a Zapotec Indian once wore it in his ear. The head of George Washington on the breasts of Artoria the Tattooed Lady, a sideshow attraction of the 1920s, evokes admiration for its sheer artistic audacity, even if you wouldn't want your wife to have one. Sandi Fellman's lush photograph of the great Japanese tattoo master Horiyoshi III holding his young son is touching and astonishing at the same time; the infant's smooth bare skin makes a striking contrast to the fantastically decorated chest of the father, covered in wind-whipped ocean waves and darting golden carp.

One wall is given over to Bettina Witteveen's large, stark, black and white portraits of people she calls "Neotribalists." These are mostly young white men and women she met and photographed in New York and San Francisco in 1997 and 1998, who have made the singular lifestyle choice of embracing Aboriginal customs. Some actually live for part of the year among primitive nomadic tribes, while others are content with just the cosmetic accouterments of body piercing, tattoos and fabulously elongated ear lobes. But that has its own rigors. "Ear extension is very tribal," she reports, "and a macho thing; it hurts like hell, especially in the cold when the skin tightens up around it. Scarification is growing, but people are finding it doesn't work very well on white skin." Witteveen calls this series of photographs "Hybrid Identities." The name goes to the heart of its disconcerting power. Historically, says Schildkrout, who is also the head of anthropology for the museum, body art was used to demonstrate social identity, to signify membership in a tribe, class or occupation. When a white Californian marks himself up like a Maori, though, is it homage--or just an extreme fashion statement?

In fact, the show comes at a crucial point in American society, when the long-suppressed custom of body art is making its leap into the broader culture. "It's gone totally mainstream," says McCabe, who manages Sacred Tattoo, a body-art shop (no longer a "parlor") in lower Manhattan, near Chinatown. The shop moved downstairs to the street level two years ago, after the city lifted a decades-long ban on tattooing. "I get stockbrokers in here all the time. They go for the big macho symbols, tigers and dragons." For many tourists, a tattoo serves as an unbreakable, indelible souvenir of their travels, which takes up no luggage space. "Tattooing has been on the increase for, probably, two decades," says Daniel Wojcik, who studies folklore at the University of Oregon at Eugene and estimates that at least a third of his students have tattoos. "Fraternity members get tattoos, athletic teams get tattoos, Jewish students get tattoos. Guys get tattoos when they run a marathon."

And in the last several years, body piercing has taken off, inspired by the examples of fashion icons such as Janet Jackson (nipple, tongue and nose) and Dennis Rodman (ears, nostrils, navel, lip and scrotum--although the last was removed after an infection set in). Leslie Maltz, a 37-year-old Californian whose self-description--"an Encino housewife"--is virtually a byword for conventionality, recently had her navel pierced and put a diamond-studded horseshoe through it, after she rejected the idea of a tattoo. Now, she says, "I don't feel like an Encino housewife anymore, I feel like a sex symbol. My husband is turned on--in fact, every man who sees it is turned on. It changed everything about how I feel about myself." And if it makes a 37-year-old housewife feel like that, you can imagine what it does to teenage girls. Some high schools still enforce bans on tattoos and piercing, but others have adopted a policy of "don't ask, don't stick your tongue out at the teacher if there's anything attached to it." "I think it's become prevalent enough so that it's not strange to principals anymore," says Michael Carr of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

That, of course, raises the question no museum dare ask: how long can a trend survive once it no longer outrages high-school principals? "Not that long ago, ear piercing for men was way out there," says Clinton Sanders, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. "Now the police officer who stops you has his ear pierced." Sanders thinks the next frontier in body modification is surgical implants. Satyrs' horns are starting to poke out on the foreheads of the fanatically avant-garde. Eventually teenagers who want to shock their parents will have to try something else, like maybe ties and jackets. And tattoos, says McCabe, can reclaim their function as a way to connect with mankind's primitive past--"a deeply spiritual thing, a defining thing. There are three things about it that haven't changed," he adds: "it hurts, it bleeds and it lasts forever."

Tattooing and other forms of body modification are losing their power to shock as the infiltrate the mainstream - althought they can still really hurt and bleed