July 12, 2012

Tattoos Make Lasting Impression In “Ephemeral Ink” Art Show

The Kinsey Institute gallery's latest installation, "Ephemeral Ink," showcases works related to tattoos from the Institute's permanent collection.

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Curator Amy Tims in the gallery

Curator Amy Tims in the gallery

Those who think “Ephemeral Ink” is an oxymoronic title for a tattoo-themed art show should see things Amy Tims’s way.

“When people talk about tattoos, it’s always, ‘don’t do it,’ ‘it’s so permanent,’ ‘what will you do when you’re eighty and have Tweety Bird on your ass?’” says Tims, the guest curator of the Kinsey Institute art gallery’s new installation.

Ephemeral Ink,” which runs from July 9 to September 21, plays with the idea of tattoos as cultural symbols of permanence. A recent Masters in Library Science has pushed Tims to reconsider the true lifespan of body ink. “Once people are dead, there’s no longer any evidence of their tattoos. I can go to the Lilly Library and hold documents hundreds of years old.”

The exhibit, which is free to the public and open Mondays through Fridays from 1:30 to 5:00 p.m., features tattoo-related art and artifacts from the Kinsey Institute collection. Pieces range from a 1940 photograph of fourteen year-old Mary Mathews, a carnival worker whose tattoos were drawn by her own father, to a commercial print of a tattooed lady censored for compliance with the Comstock Laws.

A departure from last season’s “Man as Object” installation, “Ephemeral Ink” has less to do with explicit eroticism than with “the body and how we decorate the body,” says Tims. The twin themes of body modification and ephemerality speak to the precarious position of tattoos- in various cultures as well as on people’s bodies.

“What you get when you’re twenty isn’t what you have when you’re forty, and is that necessarily a bad thing?” Tims asks. “Your body shifts, the ink shifts.”

A self-described “thirty year-old single woman with a middle-class career path” with “a tattoo some people don’t even notice,” Tims herself enjoys an inked respectability denied to Sam Steward, a focus of several works in the gallery.

“He was a professor of English at DePaul and a closeted gay man. He kept a journal about transitioning from being a professor to tattooing. He got outed as being a tattoo artist and that was not a thing to do as a respectable professor,” says Tims. Visitors to the gallery can vicariously take part in Steward’s transition.

Well-needled tattoo parlor veterans and never-been-inked art connoisseurs alike will appreciate the new exhibit’s journey through the twentieth century of American tattoo art. The tattoos represented in the gallery may be imperfect in their permanence, but they make a lasting impact on viewers of this beautiful installation.


“Ephemeral Ink” is free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 1:30 to 5:00 p.m. As with all Kinsey Institute gallery shows, viewers should be 18 or older unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. “Ephemeral Ink” premiered at Marian University in Indianapolis this February.