That tattooing has moved into the mainstream is hardly news, nor is the fact that tattoo artists can enjoy concurrent careers as fine artists (local inkers Dan Gilsdorf and Peter Archer spring to mind). That tattooing has ascended into the august halls of the Portland Art Museum this summer, however, is a more unexpected development. Marking Portland: The Art of Tattoo succeeds as an object lesson in cultural anthropology: namely, the irony-free collision of the blue-rinse set that bankrolls the museum and the blue-mohawk set who were paraded through the show's main event like exotic animals.
The first of Marking Portland's three parts is a site that lets you upload your own tattoo pics for the world to see (flickr.com/groups/markingportland)—it boasts nearly 600 photos. Secondly, there are info kiosks and art objects peppering the museum's galleries, illustrating the ways in which tattoo traditions have enriched Asian, Native American, modern and contemporary art. This is an art form, one realizes, that has evolved technically but devolved spiritually.
The third part of the show consisted of performances given July 25 in the museum's cavernous ballroom. With its fog machines and colored lights, Skinvisible was more high camp than high art, a procession of nearly naked trapeze artists and contortionists, all amply inked 'n' pierced, walking down a catwalk, swinging from bars and getting familiar with stripper poles. Think Cirque du Soleil meets Union Jacks. Between numbers, a documentary played on the big screen, lionizing local tattoo artist Don Deaton. Afterward, patrons who purchased the $10 program were invited to pose for photos with the troupe of tattooed freaks. This provided a moment of mutually opportunistic cultural imperialism as the mostly over-40 patrons mugged like tourists with the mostly twentysomething performers. The freaks seemed every bit as eager to be objectified as the establishment types were to objectify them. For the tattooed, the museum folk represent aspiration and legitimacy; for the monied interlopers, the freaks offer a chance at edginess by proximity. Attending Marking Portland is like attending a John Cage concert: The performance itself isn't that interesting, but watching the audience—and one's own reactions—is endlessly revelatory.
at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811. Closes Sept. 7. $12 ($9 students and seniors).