Heritage in Ink: Discovering the Depths of Japanese Tattoos at VMFA


The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) has managed to blend the locally popular art of tattoo and the historically beautiful craftsmanship of Japanese art with the launch of its new exhibition, “Japanese Tattoo: Perseverance, Art, and Tradition.”

The collection centers around seven internationally acclaimed tattoo artists, curated by Kip Fulbeck and Takahiro Kitamura. Fulbeck photographed each intricate work which was “inspired by the Japanese tradition of tattooing and heavily influenced by the traditional Japanese arts of calligraphy and ukiyo-e woodblock printmaking.”

Each featured picture is matched with an artist’s name and a number corresponding to a streaming audio guide. Drawing an audio aspect to a conventionally visual experience, the guide uses recordings of the curators or even the artists themselves to tell the story behind the tattoo, explain the symbolism, or delve into the bond the artist and person being tattooed now shares. “Anytime you can hear directly from an artist, what they are thinking, I feel like that’s an excellent component to any exhibition,” said Chesterfield.

“The art world is fickle at times,” said Lee Anne Chesterfield, Interim Deputy Director for Art and Education at the VMFA. Defying this stereotype, Chesterfield aimed to bring in work, not necessarily accepted by the art world as ‘fine art.’ In “Japanese Tattoo,” she hopes to foster conversations on the topic of fine arts and how to bring the life-long body modifications into the fine arts fold.

“There’s a great connection with woodblock prints and tattoo and Japanese art,” said Chesterfield of the ancient printing technique where someone carves an image into a block, dips it in ink, and presses it against a surface to create an image using the negative space.

“Until really pretty recently, [either] weren’t considered fine art,” she laughed, illuminating on the museum’s ongoing, and equally controversial exhibition featuring woodblock prints.

Chesterfield continued to draw comparisons in order to explain a subject seldom discussed in the art world equating the tattoo masters featured in the museum’s exhibition to the principal contributors of the impressionist movement who now stand as legends in art history.

“By having it in our galleries and in our museum, I fully look at [tattoos] as fine art, as artworks and artists.”

While tattoo as artwork may be a relatively modern notion, criticism is not, and it is for this reason Chesterfield says she wasn’t surprised by some of the questionable feedback received for the contended exhibit.

“I think it’s a part of art history, it happens all the time,” she said. “It opens up the discussion, the dialogue, which in my mind is the perfect opportunity, it’s something we should be doing.”

Cultivating conversation and encouraging discussion by bringing in different forms of artwork is part of the mission of the VMFA according Chesterfield, saying she welcomes all comments, questions, and critiques.

The extensive mission of the VMFA is intrinsically difficult purely because of its nature as a museum — appealing to spanning age demographics is never easy. “We always want to be accessible, we always want to bring in and welcome new groups,” said Chesterfield. “Anytime we can bring in someone that hasn’t been here before, that’s been here ages ago and doesn’t remember and doesn’t really realize what we are now, I feel like that’s a win-win for everyone.”

Challenging what is conventional by bringing in what is considered beautiful by differing crowds harbors an environment that will appeal to diverse peoples across ethnic, age, and gender lines. Chesterfield spoke on behalf of museums around the world saying, “future generations are what we are building all of this for, and so we always have to be thinking about younger demographics, younger people, bringing them in, and what’s going to spark their interest.”

The wide-ranging aim of the VMFA is palpable through this exhibit. “Richmond being one of, if not the top tattoo city in the country,” made the museum a perfect host for the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles’ exhibition, said Chesterfield.

There’s a mess of events associated with the exhibit, check them out below:

Perseverance: Creating the First Exhibition Exploring Japanese Tattooing as Fine Art
Fri, May 29, 6 – 7 pm
Cost: $8 (VMFA members $5)

Gallery Walk with Kip Fulbeck SOLD OUT
Sat, May 30, 2 – 2:45 pm
Cost: Free, with purchase of a Japanese Tattoo exhibition ticket

Understanding the Art of Tattoo: The Perseverance of Traditions in Contemporary Japanese Art
Thursdays, Jun 4 & 11, 6:30 – 8 pm (2 sessions)
Cost: $50 (VMFA members $40) *Cost includes admission to the exhibition.

Tattoo Arts and Film Festival
Fri, Sep 4, 3 – 9:30 pm
Sat, Sep 5, 10:30 am – 5 pm; Reception: 5 – 7 pm
Cost: Two-day festival pass: $25 (VMFA members $18), individual films: $8 (VMFA members $5)

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner is the former editor of GayRVA and RVAMag from 2013 - 2017. He’s now the Richmond Bureau Chief for Radio IQ, a state-wide NPR outlet based in Roanoke. You can reach him at BradKutnerNPR@gmail.com

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