Story by Anthony Aalto
Photo by Shuzo Uemoto / Honolulu Academy of Arts
When Stefan Jost arrived in Honolulu last year to take over as the new director of the Honolulu Museum of Art, he was looking to fulfill his mission “to show the best art relating to people who live here,” he says, “and I saw it walking all around me.” What he saw—at the beach, on the street, everywhere—were tattoos. Some forty-five million Americans now have tattoos, including nearly 40 percent of people age 25 to 29. And so Jost conceived Tattoo Honolulu, which opened at the museum June 14 and runs through January 13 of 2013. A tattoo exhibit in Hawai‘i’s high temple of culture? Jost says it’s no gimmick. “Tattooing has become an art form, and some of the greatest artists are here in Hawai‘i. It’s a global phenomenon, and the work done here is world-class.” To create the exhibit, museum curators sought out ten of the Islands’ top tattoo artists and had the museum’s photographer, Shuzo Uemoto, make images of some of the bodies they’d worked on. The barely clothed subjects were posed against jet-black backdrops; the resulting images—vividly colorful and nearly lifesize—hang unmatted, to visceral effect.
Artists in the show range from Keone Nunes, a Native Hawaiian who taps traditional motifs into the skin using a whalebone moli (needle) and kukui dye, to Mike Ledger, a native New Yorker Jost calls “the Rembrandt of tattooing” who works in a number of styles including photorealism. As part of the exhibit, side galleries in the museum display artists’ influences—for example, the nineteenth-century Japanese woodblock prints that inspired the ornate, color-saturated tattoos that yakuza favor. Other exhibits showcase Polynesian kapa (bark cloth) designs; a collection of equipment from pre-contact moli to modern-day machines; and original Americana “flash” drawings that once adorned the parlor walls of the likes of Sailor Jerry, who tattooed thousands of servicemen.
Also making a mark on the city: From August 3 to 5 some of the world’s best tattoo artists will converge in Honolulu as part of a huge tattoo exhibit, the Pacific Ink & Art Expo, which promises live tattooing on site at the Blaisdell.