A humorous work by Kitagawa Utamaro is in on view in “Tattoos in Japanese Prints.” (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Tattoos get high-art treatment in museum show

19th century Japanese practices relate to present-day S.F.

With a minimalistic backdrop of sleek steel blue walls and low lighting, the Asian Art Museum gives tattoos the fine art treatment in its new exhibition, “Tattoos in Japanese Prints.”

“This is a real show,” said Sarah Thompson, curator of Japanese art for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, who organized a smaller-scaled gallery of the same subject in 2010. Considering the amount of tattoo parlors in San Francisco (Yelp lists well over a 100), the expansion of the exhibit feels necessary.

Curated by Laura Allen, “Tattoos in Japaense Prints, which runs through Aug. 18, features 62 ornate small prints and insightful photographs. The show takes viewers through a quick tour of the body modification culture in Japan, describes how its function and motifs may have started, how they have evolved, and how, in some ways, have remained the same from 19th century Japan to modern-day San Francisco.

The exhibition starts with a page from a 19th century manuscript “Record of Punishments,” which recalls how tattoos were once a criminal’s alternative choice to capital punishment.

But right next to the manuscript, two prints by Kitagawa Utamaro — one realistically yet comically depicting a lover getting a tattoo and the other showing an ex-lover removing hers — hang side-by-side, playfully showing how the urge of infatuated lovers to tattoo each other’s names is timeless, and how detractors of the tradition are justified. (What happens if you break up?)

The gallery also features an extensive collection of well-preserved ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints by masters of the genre including Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a 19th century artist who brought into vogue depictions of tattooed heroes and other popular Japanese figures.

Other impressive include elaborate triptychs by Toyohara Kunichika, who prefered lively and tightly packed compositions. In his “Water Margin Heroes in Hell,” drawings of inked warriors within each panel overflow to the next one, creating a singular, energetic scene.

Though tattooing is an ancient practice, “Tattoos in Japanese Prints” contextualizes the art form well enough to show how it was unique to the common and working-class population of 19th century Japan; and it continues the theme by featuring local Bay Area tattoo artists outside the exhibit.

The juxtaposition raises the question: Does a practice commonly associated with subversive and underground culture in modern thinking belong in the sterile and orderly environment of a museum? Or more simply, should the tattoo be considered high or fine art?

One answer: Not only is tattooing a form of art that dates back to the Neolithic Age, it’s also a highly labor intensive process that involves the literal shedding of blood.

“Tattoos in Japanese Prints” is not just a novelty exhibit that’s coincidentally onbrand for the denizens of Bay Area, it is necessary.

IF YOU GO

Tattoos in Japanese Prints

Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except closed Mondays and until 9 p.m. Thursdays; through Aug. 18

Admission: $20 to $25

Contact: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org

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