Transforming Bodies

Editors' introduction

Scarification by Marita Wikstrøm Svěrák. Photo by Celine Bergundhaugen.
Editorial by

Maria Viirros

Maria Viirros presents the issue and gives us an insight into their reflections on how to approach the role as editor. With this issue, Viirros wants to create a space in which the reader can peek into the rich field of body arts, its histories, contours, and possibilities, while providing the artists with a platform to reflect upon their practices from a perspective that is not commonly considered when their work is discussed.

When Norwegian Crafts invited me to be the editor for this seventh edition of The Vessel, I immediately knew I wanted to approach the task as an opportunity to create a meeting place for the contributors and the readers. I wanted to create a space in which the reader could peek into the rich field of body arts, its histories, contours, and possibilities, while providing the artists with a platform to reflect upon their practices from a perspective that is not commonly considered when their work is discussed.

I find myself privileged in my position, because I get to sneak in and out of the realm of tattooing and the established world of arts. In addition to working as a tattooist and an artist, I have pursued an academic and artistic education. To my knowledge, I am the first alumnus of the MFA in Medium- and Material-Based Art from the Oslo National Academy of the Arts to graduate with a project that uses tattooing as its main tool for artistic expression.1 But if we look past the fancy titles, we will find out that the project actually took place in several different tattoo studios across Europe. Academia had little to do with it, other than validating the activity as ‘art’.

My papers were approved for making work similar to what others had already been doing for centuries prior to my birth. What made the definition different this time was probably a mix of luck, being at the right place at the right time, and my ability to dress tattooing in a specific vocabulary, despite my working-class background — which on the other hand played a big role in me becoming a tattooist. I fit two roles, so to say.

The liminal nature of my practice, working between two worlds, has made me aware of the two fields’ corresponsive blind spots, but also the paper-thin wall separating them. From where I stand, the division is mostly a product of class history; the same old story about ‘us’ and ‘them’, that lingers in all human interaction. Regardless of where territory lines are said to be drawn, I haven't found any absolute boundaries, but instead discovered that craft and its theories are not bound by politics. The significance of making is a fact across assemblies, and its status can’t be exclusively claimed by a single category. It’s good to remember others have been at this crossroads before; printmaking rose to the fine arts pedestal from the labour of nameless woodcut-carvers in Japan and Eastern Europe, and major textile artists like Hannah Ryggen and Frida Hansen fought their part in the women’s rights movement. The debate set-up is not new.

I recognise the turf war of art vs. tattooing, but as an editor and craftsperson, it is more important for me to focus on the work itself. This issue acknowledges body modification as a branch of the arts by default.

Tattooing is one of the oldest recorded forms of craft, which has evolved through societal and cultural changes in communities across the globe. To design the body, and quite literally work with the very materiality of humanity, our skin and flesh, is practised and celebrated in various forms and contexts in cultures everywhere. In the West, the practice was almost eradicated during the Middle Ages, due to religious persecutions that didn’t only affect the common culture in Europe, but wreaked havoc on tattoo traditions in indigenous communities everywhere Western imperialism reached. Body modification then remained out of the public eye up till the late 1800s, from where it rose to its final popular resurfacing in the ‘1990s. Despite its ubiquitous nature, the field of body modification has yet to establish its place within institutional platforms such as museums and universities.

The body arts’ discourse is riddled with speculation and opinions, due to a lack of critical analysis and examination. Organising the hearsay is not made easier by the fact that much of the information regarding the field is scattered throughout small cliques and hidden niches. If tattooing is to reclaim its authority as a substantial craft practice, and to join its peer disciplines, like ceramics, textile arts, printmaking etc, in a status that ensures organisational support and worker benefits, it needs to surrender itself to examination. Simultaneously if academia truly wishes to fulfil its role as a keeper of cultural research, it must let go of its conservative ick of the unruly and stop ignoring the vastness of the tattoo field. In any case, the walls are crumbling, and tattooing is regaining relevance under the umbrella of art.

May this project bring us one step closer to a time where body modification can stand secure in the field of crafts.

Maria Viirros

In his contribution to this issue, prehistoric archaeologist Aaron Deter-Wolf sketches out tattoos' historical framework. He writes about his findings on ancient tattooing practices and the oldest handmade tools used for marking skin. The earliest evidence of ancient tattooing dates back to 3200 BCE, while more and more examples are coming to light as a result of increased technological advancement. The findings support the idea that tattooing was a widespread activity in ancient civilisations.

In the more recent past of Western tattooing, the field has struggled with gaining validation; both from carrying a partial stigma from the past century, where tattoos were heavily associated with sailors, soldiers, inmates, and outcasts, as well as from being stamped as a reckless fad of the young and perverted. Many craftspeople who tattooed professionally during the 20th century — mostly men, from low-income backgrounds — also worked in elusive secrecy, aiming to keep their business exclusive to protect their profits, and perhaps to keep women and other historically oppressed groups out of the trade.

All the while, forward-thinking tattooists have developed and nurtured their work, honouring fruitful traditions, creating new connections, and establishing possible new futures. It is only in the past decades and with the big tattoo boom of the ‘90s that the gap between the tattoo field and the public has started to shrink. This has led scholars, artists, and crafts enthusiasts to take interest in the tattoo sphere's inner logic, heritage, and dialogues.

Researcher and tattooist Maya Sialuk Jacobsen uses her article to discuss Inuit tattoo traditions, and presents her research on traditional adornment patterns and their importance for the native Inuit culture. The article dives into her study and practice with the Inuttut way, its amulets, spiritual practices, and protective symbols that are prevalent in Inuit tattooing.

Marking the body forever is one of the strongest ways of connecting oneself to one’s identity and roots. Hand-tattooer Tor Ola Svennevig and black metal pioneer Jannicke Wiese-Hansen join together in a filmed conversation on Scandinavian-style tattooing, reflecting on their craft-based practices that reference traditional wood carving designs of the Norwegian stave churches, the dark metal subculture, Nordic lore, folk art, and prehistoric history.

On the other side of the timeline, art critic Tiril Flom interviews Elise Nedal and Linn Aasne Grønnerøe to find out about the young generation’s approach to tattooing as an artistic medium. Elise and Linn Aasne are a part of an all-female collective, Ambrosia Studio, whose concept focusses on creativity and inclusivity. Updating the definitions of the industry, they utilise colour, dynamic illustrations, and light aesthetics to redefine the structures that govern the visual language of the tattoo field.

The selection of contributions to this edition was decided to showcase the healing, ambitious vibrancy, history, and skill within body arts beyond its veil of scandal. Finding some of them and fitting it all together was a challenge, because not everyone is ready to join the conversation, and not everything is ready to be seen. The field remains radical, and entertaining new suggestions is a sensitive business.

Touka Voodoo from Stockholm Alternative shares a glimpse of his work with holistic and bespoke tattooing, where each project is made to fit individually to the body and the personality of the tattoo-wearer. Voodoo is known for his dedication to unlimited, boundary-breaking body modification, designing projects that reach from the crown of the head through arms, torso, genitals, and legs to the soles of the feet. Bettering the body through decoration becomes an act of self-love, freedom, and separatism.

In this issue, space has been given to voices that research, reflect, create, and analyse the theme of body modification from different perspectives. In addition to tattooing, we venture into the expanded field of body arts. The presentation by piercer and body suspension artist Marita Wikstrøm Svěrák cuts into the practice of scar-making, and her meditations on the empowering potential of pain.

Through modification, the body transitions into a new state of being, and with that, the psyche follows. The process is a cycle of becoming, that stems from the collaboration of the artist and the person that is getting modified.

I would like to underline that sharing skin-based work in the context of The Vessel is tricky; as the material is living, breathing, and ageing biological tissue. The work is never fixed. I would recommend the reader to adjust one’s expectations, and instead of looking for static permanency, rather approach the works presented as continuously unfolding. Or as milestones in the stories of each individual. And lastly, remember that these works might often not be intended to be exhibited to a large public, but to be lived in, and by, the singular human being that wears them.

I want to wholeheartedly thank all the contributors for sharing their time and knowledge throughout the sections of the magazine. I also want to express my gratitude to Norwegian Crafts for their courage in dedicating this issue to us, and for wanting to make us visible. May this project bring us one step closer to a time where body modification can stand secure in the field of crafts.