Contemplating Bodies & Display

September 10, 2010 at 12:02 am Leave a comment

Rosie's Place, Eddies Chinatown Tattoo, Philadelphia. August 2010. Photo by author.

Rosie's Place, Eddie's Chinatown Tattoo, Philadelphia. 2010. Photo by author.

Philadelphia's Tattooed Lady, Eddie's Chinatown Tattoo, 2010. Photo by author.

Detail. Philadelphia's Tattooed Lady, Eddies Chinatown Tattoo, 2010. Photo by author.

Body art is always to some degree about display.  The woman in the window of Philadelphia’s Eddie’s Chinatown Tattoo unabashedly illustrates this point.  Seated in the Arch Street window, everyday Rosie* flaunts her multicolored full body tattoo to passers-by.  (*The name “Rosie” is marked along the ankle of the mannequin.)

Similar to the store’s bold yellow exterior, her heavily decorated form captures attention.  Indeed, Rosie’s colorful graphic form contrasts with the vintage finds accompanying her in the interior display area.

Detail. Philadelphia's Tattooed Lady, Eddies Chinatown Tattoo, 2010. Photo by author.

With her right ankle jauntily projected towards the viewer and her strapless  little black dress exposing her shoulders and back, this mannequin appears to be selling more than tattoos.  And yet, her hands politely rest on her lap, her hair is neatly arranged in a retro bob, and her skirt demurely covers her knees.  Her demeanor asserts that she is, certainly, a lady!

Humor aside, Rosie’s presence urges viewers to consider issues of representation, display, and interpretation.  After seeing her I started to wonder:

1. What is body art? Generally, the term is used in association with tattooing, body piercings, or other forms of body modification.  However, on a basic level body art any form of dressing the body via cosmetics, clothing, styling hair, and  jewelry could be construed as artistic.  These practices are definitely implicated with material culture.  If we consider body art as a broader practice, does that mean that everyone is performing some type of body art?  How is the body material for making art/memorials?

Another View of Philadelphia's Tattooed Lady, 2010. Photo by author.

2.  How is body decoration implicated with gender codes and cultural identification? At first glance one notices that in addition to her dangling earrings, rhinestone ring and bracelet, and hair baubles, Rosie is well adorned with inked ornaments.  These  include lettering, flowers, stars, clouds, wings, bones, crosses,  military shields, a hand,  an enormous spider web, and a black panther with claws extended.  So although certain aspects of her comportment conforms to traditional notions of femininity, Rosie brazenly reveals extensive graphic tattoos.  These markings are not part of customary Western ideas of appropriate feminine appearance.  Thus, she challenges viewers to reconsider normative gender codes.

Material Girls at Macy's on Market Street. Philadelphia, August 2010. Photo by author.

3. How and when does window display function as art? Some department stores such as Barneys have been celebrated for the artistic achievements of their window designers.  And during the winter holidays window display appreciation is at its highest.

Some historians study retail design.  However, I wonder if  there any art historians seriously studying the evolution of retail window design.  Many window designers are artists and their work is both material and visual culture.  Their practice is in many ways a form of public art.  Isn’t their work worth visual analysis, interpretation, and remembrance?

Of course, with window design there are the perennial tensions between art and commerce.  Indeed, the intention of a display case/window is to sell products.  While the best windows are skillful and creative, the bottom line is marketing.  And yet, all store windows are material and visual culture.
As I was considering this issue, I found fashion blogger Cyril Style’s June 28th post regarding a contemporary artist’s window display for Barneys: in  the online journal TrendLand.   McNett’s style is vastly different from Rosie’s home on Arch Street.  Moreover, the windows are sited in different locations, sell different products, and aim to appeal to different markets.  Nonetheless, both Barneys’ and the tattoo shop’s displays have their own sense of artistry.

One window can reveal a lot…
Exposed in a store window Rosie serves as a wonderful muse for considering a range of other concepts as well.  But for now, I’ll try to keep the issues I’ve mentioned in mind as I continue my explorations of public culture in the arts.

Entry filed under: Art, Material Culture, Street Culture, Visual Culture. Tags: , , , , , .

“The Arts and the Public”- Upcoming Conference in Boston Art Hopping from Boston to DC

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