Fine Art Meets the Tattoo Culture at the Louvre

by Christina Diaz

Artist: Wim Delvoye

Would the Mona Lisa still smile if she knew she was sharing her home with a man whose tattooed back, to be peeled off after his death, was bought by an art collector for 200,000 euros ($241,800)? Tim Steiner, the owner of that precious skin, is one of the items in an exhibition at the Louvre devoted to the Flemish enfant terrible Wim Delvoye. In fact, Steiner displayed his body only at the opening, long enough to be photographed for the show’s catalog. Delvoye, who was born in 1965 and works in Ghent, Belgium, made his name with scatological provocations. At the Documenta IX art exhibition in 1992, he surprised visitors with glazed tiles featuring pictures of his own feces. In 2000, he built “Cloaca,” a digestive machine inspired by Chaplin’s film “Modern Times” that turned food into excrement. The smelly output, neatly packaged in cute jars, could be purchased by admirers of his art. At the same time, Delvoye experimented with tattooing live pigs. When he ran into trouble with the authorities, he moved his “Art Farm” to China where animal — and human — rights are less of a concern.

In the Louvre show, the pigs appear in a form that even animal-rights activists can accept: They have morphed into polyester molds sewn into Indian and Turkish carpets. Perhaps out of respect for the venerable Paris institution or because he has mellowed, Delvoye has toned down his provocative impulses. At first, he wanted to top the Louvre’s glass pyramid, which he hates, with a steel construction, a kind of medieval belfry. When the curators protested, he settled for an 11-meter- high phallic sculpture inside the pyramid named “Suppo” (for suppository).
Looking closely at the piece, you discover distorted elements of Gothic architecture, another source of Delvoye’s exuberant imagination.
References to Gothic style also abound among the 30 or so objects displayed in the apartments of Napoleon III, an odd contrast to the pompous 19th-century furniture.They include models of a chapel and a Gothic dump truck — both made of laser-cut steel — hand-carved car tires, a taxidermied rabbit on slippers and a 5-meter-high stained-glass window. In the past, Delvoye peopled his church windows with copulating skeletons and other sex scenes. A sharper eye than mine may discover obscenities in this window; to me, it looks innocent.

Until now. Visual artists are not only dropping tattoo imagery and techniques into their art, but are also gaining mainstream exposure for it. If only Dahl could have witnessed the opening of Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s installation at the Louvre this year, which featured a tattooed Swiss man named Tim Steiner. Steiner, or “Tattoo Tim,” wears on his back a black-and-gray Madonna positioned beneath a Mexican skull and pink roses, flanked by bats and swallows and anchored by Japanese waves, all referencing classic tattoo styles and imagery. Tim had been purchased in 2008 by the German collector Rik Reinking for 150,000 euros. Steiner’s contract requires that he exhibit himself three times a year, and when he dies, his skin—varnished or not—is to be given over to his buyer.

Delvoye learned to tattoo in the early ‘90s, practicing first on pigskins acquired from slaughterhouses, and then on the skin of live pigs, which he began exhibiting in 1997. “I hated the idea that I would have assistants who would master a skill that I wouldn’t master,” he says. So he practiced. He chose pigs because they provided a large work surface and because, as low-status animals, they served as ironic vehicles for the grand symbolism typically accorded to tattoos: “This is my dog, my father who died, my beloved son, my principles—I love Jesus, I love rock ‘n’ roll, I believe in the U.S. army. All these beliefs are expressed in tattoos,” says Delvoye.

While Delvoye lovingly spoofs tattoo iconography, Mexican artist Dr. Lakra embraces it. “I always liked naïve images that are symbolic and powerful, but not well done in an artistic way,” he says. “They’re really innocent. They’re done by people who don’t have artistic training,” adds Dr. Lakra . “But in a way, they’re more powerful than images that are more professional.” Read Full ArtNews Article

The exhibition, which is supported by Mercedes-Benz AG and Louis Vuitton, ran through Sept. 17. Information:

Fine Art Art Meets Tattoo Culture at the Louvre