As a former history major who wrote my senior thesis about theater as a form of edification for Richmond society (what was I smoking?), I felt like a hypocrite for not visiting the Valentine History Center since moving to RVA. Having heard heaps of praise about what is colloquially called the “tattoo exhibit,” I decided I could no longer put off a visit.
As a former history major who wrote my senior thesis about theater as a form of edification for Richmond society (what was I smoking?), I felt like a hypocrite for not visiting the Valentine History Center since moving to RVA. Having heard heaps of praise about what is colloquially called the “tattoo exhibit,” I decided I could no longer put off a visit. Formally titled “History Ink: The Tattoo Archive Project,” this buzzed-about exhibition was the perfect excuse for me to finally discover the Valentine, a true gem of Richmond historiography.
I’m glad the Tattoo Archive Project mobilized me to visit the Valentine. Tattoos aside, a trip to the Valentine renders a thorough look at Richmond’s incredibly rich history. Did you know, for example, that while most states’ slave populations worked in rural settings, a great number of Richmond’s worked in factories, often alongside whites? Perhaps you’ve heard of “Meat-Juice?” (I hadn’t). Mann Valentine, the patriarch of the family that funded the Valentine History Center, made his fortune off this “nourishing protein tonic.” Personally, I find the fact that one of this city’s most historically prominent families made their fortune off something called “Meat-Juice” quite hilarious, and also oddly fitting. These oft-ignored details help provide a more coherent framework for trying to understand what makes our little “Southern” city so unique. These details make Richmond. While our identity–can you truly call Richmond Southern?–is hard to pin down, the details speak for themselves. One of these is that is our city, as the curation cited, was listed on NBC’s “The Today Show” as the 3rd most tattooed city in the United States.
Unlike many of you, I’m relatively new to Richmond. Over the past year or so of living here, I’ve observed this town with a newborn’s curiosity, often noticing the details that tend to become less noticeable as you get used to them. One of the first things that struck me is how omnipresent tattoos are in Richmond, especially in comparison to Charlottesville where I previously lived. The popularity of tattoos is yet another snippet of Richmond that makes us unique. Personally, I think it’s awesome that the Valentine created this contemporary exhibition, as the idea of documenting the present is almost more fascinating than displaying relics of the past.
The Valentine History Center made a call to the public in need of tattooed individuals willing to be photographed for the project. The public delivered, as apparently 100 people volunteered to have Richmond photographer Terry Brown document their ink. The exhibit not only chronicles Richmond externally, but forces the viewer to look inwards. On the one sense, it forced me to confront a lot of the (admittedly negative) preconceived notions I had about tattoos: they are narcissistic, they’re emblems of people who desperately vie for attention, etc. In many cases, the descriptions below the tattoos verified this, in that they were often created for some very, very personal reasons. Perhaps, however, I was being unfair. I know plenty of people who are incredibly narcissistic and DON’T have tattoos.
I found it interesting that the curator noted how tattoos have often been associated with people who “lived on the edge of society; however, today they are recognized as a legitimate art form and widely accepted in mainstream culture.” Hmm. The words “legitimate” and “art” used in the same sentence tend to alarm me, but really this sentence says so much. Despite social schisms within the Richmond art world, the line between mainstream and underground artistic culture has become increasingly blurred in the local scene. In the realm of used-to be-irreverently-perceived-but-are-now-widely-accepted art forms, graffiti and tattoo art thrive here, and have undoubtedly entered the realm of “mainstream culture.” This exhibit seamlessly merges art and sociological documentation, creating a sense that the term “mainstream” is in and of itself, obsolete.
First and foremost, the photography is magnificent. Brown’s photos show the attention to detail and highly saturated colors of many of the tattoos. Walking into the small room, I immediately was struck by how many colors surrounded me. Because tattoos are so small and yet so detailed in comparison to a lot of other art, it’s tough to know where to focus when surrounded by so many. My initial impression was that the exhibition seemed oddly small, but after taking my time to read all of the descriptions and to really soak in the photos, I concluded that it was very tastefully designed. In other words, I was able to walk away from the exhibit without feeling too inundated with visual and verbal information- which is how I often feel after visiting huge museums (even VFMA).
Once I got over the initial shock of being surrounded by so many bright colors that all begged for my attention, I took a deep breath and started the process of carefully examining each photograph. Then the fun began. Each tattoo had a description which included a personal quote from the inked. It’s amazing how many tattoos serve mnemonic purposes. Throwing aside the cliches, the explanations that “I have this tattoo to symbolize how important this is to ME” (notice usage of personal pronouns), I noticed a fascinating mnemonic legacy in the descriptions.
Take Scott Gehm’s tattoo. Of his tattoo, Scott explains that it’s “..the Main Street clock tower and cardinal… represents my love for Richmond… the cardinal is not only our state bird but also my late grandmother’s favorite bird, and the time on the clock is my mother’s birthday.” While this serves as a reminder of loved ones, many of the other tattoos represented personal reminders for the inked. Karyn Kotula’s tattoo, for example, is a saying about “never giving up… the ‘Ts’ are not crossed .. so i remember that life isn’t perfect.” Not all of the tattoos serve as memory devices or contain deep meaning, as one of the descriptions simply read, “Owls are cool, so I got one.” While the photos themselves made for a great visual experience, the unabashed attitude of these explanations made the exhibit really come alive for me.
I began to notice the similarities and differences in the styles of the various artists–the kind of categorical recognition that indulges the right brain. I could differentiate between the styles of, for example, Loose Screw vs Salvation Tattoo. To many tattoo aficionados, this isn’t any sort of glaring news, but I think that having the tattoos frozen in time in a photographic format vs. seeing them on a human, allows you to really focus in on the details. So often, tattoos seamlessly commingle with their owner’s personalities which certainly changes your the perception of the work. Removing that personal aspect from the viewing experience, you’re faced with nothing but a photo of the tattoo itself (there were no face shots) and a small description that allows for a completely new way of digesting this type of art. You begin to objectively see the trends in shading and line work. Many tattoos that would under normal circumstances be hidden partially or completely are fully exposed. Nothing is left to the imagination.
You have plenty of time to check out this exhibit, which is on display through March 31. The Valentine’s permanent exhibitions stand on their own if you’ve any curiosity about our city’s history, but “History Ink; The Tattoo Archive Project” is a fascinating draw.
The Valentine Richmond History Center is located at 1015 E. Clay St. Hours are Tuesday – Saturday 10 AM – 5 PM, Sunday 12 PM – 5 PM. Admission is $8 for adults. For more information on “History Ink,” click HERE.