Skin: Totem and Tattoo

Curatorial and anthropological explorations about the boundary between self, world and society, on display through June 23, 2014


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Curatorial practice
  • Public culture


Osvaldo Romberg, Lars Krutak


Aaron Levy, Jean-Michel Rabaté


English Department, University of Pennsylvania

Opens to public





4017 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104


25% Formal - 75% Informal

The tradition of the tattoo goes back thousands of years as a form of religious, shamanic and tribal marker, although in the past four decades it has taken on new meanings alongside the development of body and skin art.

Please join us at Slought on Tuesday May 6, 2014 from 6:30-8:30pm for the opening of Skin: Totem and Tattoo, an exhibition that explores this fascinating history of self transformation and conceptualization. It features two sections, "Shamanic Skin" and "Performing Skin," that juxtapose contemporary skin practices from both an anthropological and artistic perspective. Anthropologist Lars Krutak will deliver a public seminar on the art of religious tattooing beginning at 7pm, with introductory remarks by Curator Osvaldo Romberg and a response by Apostolos Lampropoulos.

Featured works include anthropological photographs of shamanic tattooing from the collection of Dr. Lars Krutak; Stelarc's Ear on Arm (video, 2007), in which a cell-cultivated ear is surgically implanted on the artist's arm; ORLAN's Successful Operation (video, 1991), where the artist undergoes her fourth surgery-performance; and Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book (film, 1996), which explores Asian iconography about writing on the body. Other works include Claudia Hart's The Seasons (2012), Ingrid Mwangi's Neger (1999), and Zhou Xiaohu's The Gooey Gentlemen (2002), courtesy of Teutloff Museum in Bielefeld, Germany.

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Shamanic Skin

In 1777, the word 'tattoo' was defined as "an indelible mark or figure fixed upon the body by insertion of pigment under the skin or by the production of scars." For thousands of years before, however, Indigenous peoples practiced various forms of tattooing and scarification not only to beautify themselves or mark significant life achievements, but also to please or seek protection from particular spirits which inhabited their world. Dr. Lars Krutak has traveled the globe meeting Indigenous people to learn about their unique tattoos and the religious beliefs behind them. His section of the exhibition will focuse on the deeply spiritual realm of tattoo through an examination of body modification rituals worldwide.

Dr. Lars Krutak is an American anthropologist known for his research about tattoo and its cultural background. For his 10-part documentary series Tattoo Hunter on the Discovery Channel, he traveled the Indigenous world to showcase vanishing art forms of body modification. He works in the Repatriation Office of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Performing Skin

In the past 10 years the tattoo has become part of the bourgeois articulation of fashion.  Ironically, during the counter-cultural period of 1968 and after, the tattoo had re-emerged in the West as a form of revolt against bourgeois sensibilities. This emergence of the tattoo also coincides with the development of body and skin art. Started in the sixties, this artistic sensibility used body and skin as a medium for complex narratives: Herman Nitsch's orgiastic journeys involving blood and wine; Gunter Brus' masochistic gestures; Arnulf Rainer's distorted self-portraits; the endurance works of ORLAN, Gina Pane, Klaus Rinke, Ulay and Marina Abramović, and Stelarc; and, crucially, Carolee Schneemann's emphasis on sexual liberation.

This section of the exhibition explores the relations between body and skin art on the one hand, and the tattoo on the other. Both employ the body as a primary support. Both can involve physical pain and are related to identity and gender politics. On the other hand, if body art is an heir of performance, tattoo is an heir to painting, a form of painting on the skin. If body art attempts to move beyond painting, the tattoo regresses to that tradition. The indelibility of the tattoo suggests a sort of permanence that is only interrupted by death. In contrast, the performative essence of body art concerns the here and now, and the transitory communion with a public that plays such an essential and creative part. 

Osvaldo Romberg is Senior Curator for Artist Projects at Slought.

Skin "is the interface which marks the boundary with the outside and keeps that outside out; it is the barrier which protects against penetration by the aggression and greed emanation from others, whether people or objects. Finally [...] skin is a site and a primary means of communicating with others, of establishing signifying relations; [...] it is an 'inscribing surface' for the marks left by those others."

— Didier Anzieu, The Skin Ego

Learn more about other perspectives on skin and touching