A highly anticipated exhibition exploring the history of tattoos in Malta will be open to the public from the 7th of October at the Maritime Museum in Birgu. Back in the early 20th Century, tattoos were rare and rebellious – thought to be something reserved for criminals and of course rowdy sailors – which is what makes the Grand Harbour Marina venue so fitting!
‘REL.INK – Indelible Narratives’ is an ongoing project which aims to trace as much of the history of early Maltese tattoo culture as possible. The pioneers of the cause have put out a call for anyone over the age 75 and tattooed to join in and contribute to the archive with photographs or even just their backstories. The Maritime Museum exhibition will showcase the pieces of the puzzle that have come to light since the project’s conception, linking in existing artefacts from the museum— and it doesn’t disappoint. The exhibition is curated by Pierre Portelli and researched by Dr Georgina Portelli, in association with Heritage Malta and the University of Malta.
There’s lots to be discovered, and artefacts include photographs, testimonials and even antique passport documents which describe seafarers’ tats in depth, in French! It turns out, Maltese sailors had close links to the port of Marsailles in the South of France, which is historically well known as a crossroad for trade and immigration. The sailors would spend a lot of time away from home for merchant trips and seasonal work on the continent, and often returned back to Malta with more than they set out for…
Early maritime tattoos were simple yet painful, with blue or black ink pierced into the skin with needles whilst the skin was held taut. Numbers, symbols and initials were popular – used to mark journeys, religion or lovers back home. By the arrival of the electric tattoo machine, things got a whole lot more fun. Scantily clad women, mermaids, anchors and ships became motifs associated with seafaring culture, for obvious reasons. But tattoos amongst Navy servicemen, seafarers and port workers were much more than just an act of rebellion, they set apart sailors from non-sailors. Tattoos were markings of pride in seeing the world, and the hardship endured at sea—a lifestyle the land workers would never really understand.
The Maltese have a very special place in the history of tattoos. As sailors from a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean, you can just imagine the rich culture that went with working out at sea or in the ports, at a time when our surrounding waters drove our very economy. If you weren’t a sailor or a serviceman, you might have been a sail maker or a coalman. Not forgetting the fishermen, and of course the fishermen’s wives who’d run the show back on shore.
The REL.INK archives also aim to track down the island’s earliest tattoo parlours who’d open their doors to not only to the Maltese but Army and Navy servicemen stopping by in the Med!
Possibly the first photographic record of a Maltese tattoo artist. Via Liverpool’s Tattoo Museum.
The REL.INK exhibition unveils that tattoos have a huge place in our history and culture, and an exhibition like this, hosted by Heritage Malta and The Malta Arts Fund is exactly the sort of level of relevance we should be aiming for. Linking in memorials from Maltese sailors tattooed as far away from home as Singapore and as familiar as Strait Street, the exhibition is informative and captivating for all audiences, which is important. Nowadays, tattoos have a huge place in modern society and popular culture— they’re accepted as an expression of individuality for just about everyone, regardless of perceived class or gender.
Delving deeper into the origins of tattooing might just teach you a few things about our brave ancestors, and you’re bound to leave feeling a little patriotic at your Mediterranean roots. Who knew we were such trendsetters?
REL.INK – Indelible Narratives will run from the 7th October to the 29th December at Malta Maritime Museum, Birgu from Monday to Sunday: 09:00 – 17.00. Admission is free.