Gallery  June 25, 2024  Fabio Fiocchi

Mediterranean Tattoo Art and History Explored in Milan Exhibit

Courtesy Museo di Antropologia Criminale, Cesare Lombroso - Università di Torino

Tattooed inmate, post 1914. Charcoal print.

“Tattoo. Tales from the Mediterranean” is a captivating exhibition currently on display at the MUDEC— the Museum of Cultures in Milan, Italy— that invites visitors to investigate the past and present of the art of tattooing in the Mediterranean basin. 

Visitors can move through five rooms and two corridors, one located at the beginning and the other at the end, “traveling” from prehistory to contemporary times, as the exhibition traces the history of the tattoo.

After a brief introduction on the contemporary art of tattoo, its meaning, general history, and distribution, visitors are guided into a room where the walls display portraits of contemporary artists and their works. The exhibition path then follows along a serpentine corridor, the walls of which display projections of interactive maps outlining a multitude of interesting, anthropological facts about this art among various populations around the world.

Courtesy Tattoo Museo Gian Maurizio, Fercioni, Milano

Ouled Nail tribe dancer, Rudolf Franz Lehnert (1878-1948), Ernst, Heinrich Landrock (1878-1966). 

Information on some of the oldest archaeological tattoo discoveries is also present. Among this includes some of the milestones of archeological history, such as Ötzi the “Iceman” (3350-3120 BCE), a Copper Age man found in 1991 in a glacier in Val Senales (Italy), whose mummified body displayed 61 tattoos.

This section also mentions Magdalenian, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian tattoo-related artifacts, along with traditions and their meaning and function.

It is fascinating seeing that tattoos have always been a global phenomenon, since there is plenty of proof of the tattooing practice in every corner of the world. Different countries and cultures throughout history appeared connected by ink strokes, injected with a variety of instruments and techniques, but follwing a purpose and meaning that has been repeated for millennia.

As one proceeds to the following room, they find a new section mainly dedicated to the medieval crusaders and modern age pilgrims. The centerpiece of this room comprises a display of Renaissance period wooden plates from Loreto (Marche region, Italy), where an important sanctuary arose in the XVI century. 

These plates were used by “i marcatori” (“the markers”) to tattoo symbols of their belief on the faithful, a practice that is ideologically frowned upon but still tolerated by the Church.

Another point of interest to see here is the impact tattoos had on explorers and travelers during the Age of Explorations and, later, the prejudices against tattooing. These prejudices spread because of the studies of Marco Ezechia Lombroso— known as Cesare Lombroso— a controversial intellectual who studied the tattoos of prisoners, trying to demonstrate they were connected to an evil, antisocial and violent attitude.

Manifest Wellcome Collection, London

Albanian George Costentenus (b. 1833), the "Greek tattooed prince," a circus artist tattooed on the entire surface of his body, claimed to have been been kidnapped in the course of his adventurous life by the Chinese Tartars and tattooed against his own will.

As an archeologist and someone who is passionate about the history of global exploration, I particularly appreciated the first part of the exhibition. I found quite notable the projections of animated portraits of explorers from the XVII to XIX centuries, who “read” extracts of their publications, revealing their individual amazement and curiosity about tattooing practices. Some explorers even documented obtaining tattoos of their own on their travels.

Generally speaking, the exhibit is an experience mainly centered on reading (or listening, if you choose the aid of an audio guide) with multiple bilingual panels (in Italian and English) that accompany the images and objects throughout the gallery. 

Although interesting and well thought-out, I felt that the exhibit had a lack of objects to contemplate, especially in the first sections on pre- and ancient history.

It would have been wonderful to observe more original archaeological finds, photos, tools, old books, or prints in order to have the chance to appreciate not only the patterns or designs of the tattoos and their history, but also to contemplate the displayed objects as part of the cultural art process. 

Courtesy Tattoo Museo Gian Maurizio, Fercioni, Milano

The tattoo artist of Borgo Loreto (Naples), 19th century.

It could have also been interesting to compare a contemporary tattoo style with archaeological or historical examples to highlight some of the artists whose portraits and works are hung in the very first room.

The last section of the exhibit displayed multiple portraits paired with the personal information of the subjects and their cultural-historical background. 

Personally, I would have given more space to this section, maybe resizing the previous room as the entire Lombroso sections felt too large, especially considering the presence of a small, additional room with pieces of tattooed human skin taken from dead prisoners and preserved as part of Lombroso’s “scientific” collection.

Recognizing that it is not easy to expose such a vast topic, and besides these personal notes, my experience was a positive one. I enjoyed exploring the world of tattoos and discovering its history and peculiar cultural facts, traditions, superstitions, art, hopes, and blendings of faith.

If you are at all interested in exploring this intriguing side of human history, I encourage you to go to the MUDEC before July 28, 2024 to enjoy this exhibition yourself.

45.451931366133, 9.1613355

Tattoo. Tales from the Mediterranean
Start Date:
March 28, 2024
End Date:
July 28, 2024
About the Author

Fabio Fiocchi

Fabio is an Italian archaeologist, native to the city of Milan. He specialized in cisterns, wells and underground excavations and holds a degree in Science of Cultural Heritage from the University of Milan and in Archaeology and Cultures of the Ancient World from the University of Bologna. A lover of books and art, his work has led him to develop a particular interest in ancient everyday objects from the Celtic, Roman and Etruscan worlds.

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