- Associated Press - Monday, January 16, 2017

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) - Never before has an exhibit on the scale of “Indiana Tattoo: History and Legacy” been attempted in Indiana.

In the exhibit that was to open Friday at the Grunwald Gallery of Art on the Indiana University-Bloomington campus, Indiana’s tattoo history will be on full display in the most comprehensive collection to date, curator Jeremy Sweet believes.

It took a year to put together the exhibit, which is co-curated by Sweet, a tattoo enthusiast and associate director of the gallery, and tattoo artist Colin McClain, owner of Time and Tide Tattoo on East Sixth Street.

“This exhibit is not necessarily an art show, but more of an installation,” Sweet said.

The installation will run through Feb. 3, featuring pieces from more than a dozen collectors representing every era of Indiana tattoo history. More than 30 contemporary artists also created unique, hand painted “flash sheets,” 11 inches by 14 inches, full of predesigned tattoo ideas, representing various styles and eras of tattoo history.

The centerpiece of the collection is “Welcome Back to the Badlands,” a concurrent exhibit on the late tattoo artist/wrestler/tiger owner Roy Craig “Roy Boy” Cooper, a Gary artist who had a knack for living life to the fullest. The collection, owned by tattoo artist Eric Smolinski, features many photographs of Cooper’s work, leather jackets he airbrushed and a charred racing helmet from when he crashed his drag car, among other items. Cooper died in 2010.

“Roy Boy did what he wanted, and you’ve gotta respect a guy like that,” Sweet said.

There’s also a collection of photographs of tattooed individuals from the early 1900s, originally collected by Bernard Kobel in his Frankfort photography studio and donated to the Kinsey Institute in 1955, that Sweet says has an immeasurable importance for modern tattooing.

“Kobel saw the importance of cataloging all of these images. He was extremely influential in helping preserve these photographs and then also widely disseminating them so that this art form could continue to spread,” Sweet said. “These images - these styles of tattoos - have a huge influence on modern tattooing.”

There are images of IU graduate Cliff Raven and his work during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Raven, a gay man born in East Chicago, became one of Chicago’s most influential tattoo artists during that period. Roy Boy Cooper even studied under Raven for a time.

The exhibit also features newspaper clippings from around the state from 1963 to 1996 - a time in which tattooing was generally illegal in Indiana.

“You had to be a doctor to tattoo during that time,” Sweet said. “So, many artists went underground and kept working that way.”

That criminalization of tattooing turned what Sweet called “a gentlemanly endeavor” into a rough outlet for biker gangs and undesirables to mark their turf and easily identify one another, helping create a negative stigma about tattooing.

McClain said when he started tattooing in Indiana 17 years ago, an exhibit of this kind would not have been possible. But, McClain noted, most people are coming around to the fact that tattoos are a part of society and they’re not going away anytime soon. As a result, the negative view is fading into the past.

“(Tattoo history) has really been underdocumented, underappreciated, under-respected by the art community; and really, when you think about it, it’s American history and American folk art,” he said. “The fact that all of this information gets passed down orally from tattooer to tattooer, information just gets lost. So, if we don’t do things like this now, we’re going to lose that history. That would be a tragedy, really.”

Sweet said there have been attempts in the past to document some portion of tattoo history, but the collections often fall short and don’t include input from actual tattoo artists.

“My whole goal in curating this with Colin was to reach out to actual tattooers, tattoo historians and tattoo enthusiasts,” Sweet said. “It’s a story to be told and to be passed on by tattooers. This whole show - all the information - has been sought out by the tattooers.”

“Indiana Tattoo: History and Legacy” is a one-off show. It will not travel or be pulled together again, but instead, Sweet will catalog each piece to ensure that the history will live on, even as the collections scatter back to the wind.

“I see this as a grand platform to start from,” Sweet said. “We know there’s a lot more history out there.”

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Source: The (Bloomington) Herald Times, http://bit.ly/2j7S7HY

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Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com

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