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Inked in history

Hosted by Heritage Malta, the project Rel-Ink, a historical discovery through the art of Maltese tattooing, will be held at the Maritime Museum from October 7 till the end of December 2017

amy_micallef_decesare
Amy Micallef Decesare
21 September 2017, 10:35am
Skin-deep stories: Rel-Ink (Photo: Pierre Portelli)
Skin-deep stories: Rel-Ink (Photo: Pierre Portelli)
Until fairly recently, tattoo art was perceived primarily as taboo, “with deeply held prejudices against the practice, mostly associated with unruly sailors, waterfront workers, prison inmates and the criminal underworld,” says Pierre Portelli, artist curator of upcoming project ‘Rel-Ink’.

Tattoo art is almost commonplace today, with it even becoming part of mainstream pop culture. All you have to do is take a casual stroll down the street and you’ll notice that people from all walks of life have a range of tattoo art, from the small and dainty to the large and loud. 

Having always been intrigued by the world of tattooing, throughout his career, Portelli has been involved in several contemporary art projects and sees Rel-Ink as the next exciting step in the research process, which he has in the subject. 

Skin-deep stories: Rel-Ink (Photo: Pierre Portelli)
Skin-deep stories: Rel-Ink (Photo: Pierre Portelli)
Skin-deep stories: Rel-Ink (Photo: Pierre Portelli)
Skin-deep stories: Rel-Ink (Photo: Pierre Portelli)
Skin-deep stories: Rel-Ink (Photo: Pierre Portelli)
Skin-deep stories: Rel-Ink (Photo: Pierre Portelli)
Skin-deep stories: Rel-Ink (Photo: Pierre Portelli)
Skin-deep stories: Rel-Ink (Photo: Pierre Portelli)
Skin-deep stories: Rel-Ink (Photo: Pierre Portelli)
Skin-deep stories: Rel-Ink (Photo: Pierre Portelli)
He himself grew up in the beautiful port city of the capital, Valletta and has always been intrigued by the characters on ships or at the waterfront.

This is where the latest project, Rel-Ink, which was made possible by lead researcher and coordinator Dr Georgina Portelli, with the assistance of Maria Micallef, from Heritage Malta and artist curator Pierre Portelli, comes into play.

Rel-Ink promises to explore tattoos and their significance in the day to day life of elderly Maltese males, aged 75 and over, who worked as labourers, seafarers and the like, at a time when the maritime sector was the mainstay in Malta’s colonial economy – which means, from the 1900s all the way up to the Second World War. It will feature in-depth personal oral history accounts, straight from the mouths of tattooed participants as well as documentation and images of their tattoo designs, with the main motivation being to cast a light on Maltese tattoo artists and their handiwork. 

“One of the objectives is to document, as extensively as possible, twentieth century tattoo designs in the Maltese population”, said Pierre.

But that’s not all! The project aims to build a digital archive, which will be made available as an open-source platform via partner the Department of Library Information and Archives Study at the University of Malta, ensuring that all information will be made available online, for all to see and admire.

To bring this project to life, historical research was gathered and combed through from the National Archive of Malta, which showed that at the time, tattoos were included on passport documents and referenced as “visible distinguishing marks”. 

Artist-curator Pierre Portelli
Artist-curator Pierre Portelli
The Mediterranean port city of Marseille, in France, was a popular destination for seamen and waterfront workers at the time, who were searching for a better life or seasonal work, during the early part of the 20th century. With this in mind, Rel-Ink will also provide viewers with an in-depth view into the little-known connection between Malta and Marseille, as the project also “researches these migratory links and points of engagement with Marsielle”, looking at references to tattooing and the Maltese from the Archives départementales des Bouches-du-Rhône, Marseille and other literary sources.

The presentation of these initial research findings will be exhibited at the Malta Maritime Museum, from 7 October till the end of December, 2017. Featuring three contemporary art practitioners, Sarah Micallef, Andrew Rizzo and French tattoo artist, Sailor Roman have been invited to engage with the discovered material as well as create new works, which will be presented in discourse with artefacts from the collection at the Maritime Museum.

Pierre described a couple of his favourite examples, from the collection so far. These include “St George on horseback on the right forearm, Virgin Mary and a Scotch soldier on the left forearm”, as well as the very first Maltese national they encountered at Marseille, who had a “Buste de femme as a description of the tattoo he carried”.

Portelli is convinced that being given the opportunity to listen to these elderly individuals describing their own stories in deep detail is what has greatly enriched the project’s content.

The Rel-Ink project is supported by the Malta Arts Fund and Arts Council Malta and is also indebted to a number of people, who have supported Rel-Ink from its inception, namely Prof Milena Dobreva; The Maritime Museum curator Liam Gauci, together with Maria Micallef; Dr Josianne Cutajar, Dr Ronald Fiorentino from St Vincent de Paul Residence, the National Archives of Malta and the Archives départementales des Bouches-du-Rhône, Marseille.

Maltese passport dating 1920 with a vivid tattoo description. (Courtesy National Archives of Malta)
Maltese passport dating 1920 with a vivid tattoo description. (Courtesy National Archives of Malta)
Tat femme á la belle Marie, l oiseau portant truban and etoile du Malheur. (Courtesy Archives départementales des Bouches-du-Rhône, Marseille)
Tat femme á la belle Marie, l oiseau portant truban and etoile du Malheur. (Courtesy Archives départementales des Bouches-du-Rhône, Marseille)
It is also important to note that Rel-Ink is a Citizen Science-based project, meaning that it is seeking the assistance of members of the public, in order to “preserve the historical narrative” and document real-life images and personal accounts of tattooing in Malta, during the early 20th century. Heritage Malta is inviting the public to come forward and submit their very own stories, memories and images related to Maltese tattoo art during the time.

 

If you are over 75 years of age, have tattoos and would like to share your story, have elderly relatives or friends with tattoos, who would like to share theirs, or have any other visual documentation, such as photographs, drawings or any other tattoo-related objects from the period, contact 9946 7189 or send an email to: [email protected]

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