Skin Deep

Metaphors are useful in art as well as writing, and if you were looking for a metaphor to explain just what's right -- and also, unfortunately, just what's wrong -- with DiverseWorks' latest show, "Skin Speak: the First Survey of Houston Tattoo," you had to look no further than the melee that was the exhibit's opening night. According to DiverseWorks officials, some 1,200 people showed up to view a room hung with photos of tattooed men and women, and to see other tattooed men and women presented in the flesh as part of a runway display. The numbers were impressive, as was the cross section of the crowd -- standard art mavens chock-a-block with people who had probably thought an art opening ranked right up there with root canal work as a source of pleasure.

But though with the audience DiverseWorks accomplished its goal of appealing to a varied public, what it ended up displaying failed to live up to the show's title. The collection of images and artifacts displayed in the gallery is less a survey than an assortment of oddities as sloppy and garish as those collected in a Ripley's Believe It or Not museum.

For those hoping to be introduced to an art form, the opening was frustrating. One man's tattoo, a back-piece of religious figures, was explained -- he got it for protection during surgery. Another model, a girl with a scar running up her spine, had vertebrae outlined in deep blue ink on her lower back -- her body art was probably an emotional response to a medical crisis. However, it was not presented as anything but ink.

This opening set the tone for the whole show. Close-up photos of tattoos, photos of tattooed people and sheets of "flash" -- tattoo artists' drawings and designs -- are hung on the gallery walls. In two corners, TVs play videos. And a "tattoo parlor" -- ink and a chair, basically -- is set up in the center of the room. Many of the images presented are intriguing, but almost nothing is explained. What were the early styles? What are the contemporary styles? Are most tattoos from the '40s crude because the artists were limited by their inks and machines, because that's what the customer wanted or because the tattoo artists had a limited imagination? For that matter, why is flash called flash?

A tour of "Skin Speak" won't answer these questions, even though a survey should offer information and history, not just pretty pictures. Conventional art exhibitions, especially those introducing a new or difficult form, typically have not only catalogs but also signs and labels, simple printed statements offering history and noting important details, throughout the exhibition. Didactic labeling has been part of previous DiverseWorks shows in the past. It's sorely missed here.

Photographer Gary Bankhead does supply some pretty pictures -- his collection of black-and-white studies, called "The Lost Tribe," is one of the highlights of "Skin Speak." "The Lost Tribe" photos show a group of young Houstonians with tattoos that were done in the last decade. I know they're Houstonians, and I know they were tattooed in recent years, only because I happen to recognize the people in the photos. If you're not familiar with the subjects, "Skin Speak" doesn't help you out; the wall label offers only the name of the photographer.

The fact that a picture is in a survey of Houston tattoo does not, apparently, guarantee that the subjects or the artists who did their tattoos are Houstonians. Glossy color photographs by Billy Tinney are scattered throughout the gallery. Although he photographed the first world tattoo convention, held here in 1976, Tinney has no other obvious Houston connections. But he's a big dog in tattoo circles; he first photographed tattoos for Easy Riders magazine in 1972 and started the first tattoo magazine, Tattoo. Some of the Tinney photos are from the 1976 convention; some are cover photos from recent issues of magazines such as Savage and Outlaw Biker. These are fun to look at and perhaps would have been useful as dividers between the displays. Or the Tinney art might have strengthened the survey aspect if the show were grouped by tattoo styles -- if Tinney photos of '70s-type tattoos were next to flash from the '70s and so on. Instead, they're just scattered about, intriguing and entertaining instead of informative.

Nearly half of the material displayed in this show is from the Lyle Tuttle Tattoo Art Museum in San Francisco. Tuttle is a tattooist to the stars (from Janis Joplin to Mickey Rourke) and a media darling. He generously lent flash and memorabilia, and his celebrity, to the show. Most of his contributions, however, are not clearly labeled.

"Painless" Bill Sanders, a legendary Houston tattoo artist, is represented with Tuttle-owned memorabilia. A case by the entrance has a collection of informative, though maddeningly undated or labeled, documents and photos. One crisp, typewritten sheet is "The History and Meaning of Tattooing." In this statement, the closest thing to an artist statement in "Skin Speak," Sanders identifies himself as a native Texan with a bachelor's from the University of Texas, a master's in philosophy from Columbia and a tattoo parlor "on Washington Avenue for the last 15 years." Although he doesn't explain his fascination with body ink, some of his personality emerges as Sanders offers lighthearted remarks such as "the Naked Ape has been eternally pranking in whatever way to enhance his relatively bare appearance" and "historically, man has been tattooing his hide ever since he came down from the trees and shed his hair." His statement also names some famous tattooed people.

Next to Sanders' statement is a faded -- and also undated -- newspaper clipping. Sanders, who is described as a grouchy sleaze, is interviewed in his studio. He gives the reporter information about Lady Randolph Churchill's tattoo (a delicate snake design that was not always hidden by her clothing) and then provides a general overview of tattoo history, starting with primitive man and going forward through British royalty and American sailors inspired by Japanese traditions. Pay attention to what Sanders had to say: this column of newsprint is the only history in the room, and Bill Sanders, who's dead, is the only Houston artist actually explored in DiverseWorks' survey.

Jodi Griffin, of Scream'n Demon tattoo studio, lent items from her collection of tattoo machines, memorabilia and flash and she has a lively personality, and yet nowhere on the walls is a statement from her. She collects tattoo stuff and her flash is lovely; that's all this survey of Houston tattoo tells us about this Houston artist. It may be that one of the videos is a mini-documentary on Griffin. Eight videos, give or take, are played in rotation on one of the televisions. Although I never saw her on tape, Griffin's studio might be featured. Still, one shouldn't have to sit through a video to "get it" at an art show. People with that kind of time could just go hang out at a tattoo studio.

"Skin Speak: the First Survey of Houston Tattoo" doesn't educate those who are curious about tattoos. Really, this is the oldest kind of tattoo exhibition, like a ten-in-one sideshow, offering only a chance to gawk at the geeks.

"Skin Speak" shows through March 2 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 223-8346.

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Edith Sorenson