Tattoos, pretty, painful pictures or something more? I went to the tattoo exhibition at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth to find out.

There are two new exhibitions to see after the Vikings have left. We have Captain Bligh : Myth, Man Mutiny and Tattoo : British Tattoo Art Revealed. The Bligh stuff is ace but I went for Tattoo in the hope I would be exposed and educated to different types of design.

The show was fantastically interesting, featuring model arms with real tattoo designs, snippets of text explaining the history and quotes from the business. Quotes like this:

It is not about fashion. (fashion changes. A tattoo is on your skin for life. You must be proud of it for life. It is about tradition that stretches back thousands of years. – Tihoti Faara Barff

Being as upfront as I can be, I went there expecting to see some pretty pictures and nice illustrations. I thought that maybe there would be some content that would make me squirm a little and potentially a situation that would be a definite nope.

Image: National Maritime Museum Cornwall /

Points of interest

Turns out it was ace all round. The intended route is to start at the earliest occurrence of tattoos in Britain ( Spoiler alert: it is **not** Captain Cook ) and end up in the present day. The walls are littered with fantastic quotes and stories from those most involved in the art through each decade. There are interesting accounts of women applying permanent makeup in the 1950s and explanations of why Tattoos have become associated with the rough working classes.

What struck me most about the stories I was reading was the attitude of the artists and their canvases. They saw themselves as part of the tradition of the art. It was so much more than pretty pictures to them and this was evident to me as I observed more of their work. Their tattoos were impressive for sure but it was their connection to the past which is what left a lasting mark for me.

Most striking

I am told that there were some contributions from some private collections to showcase the Tattoo scene in Britain. Donations from Willy Robinson, Paul ‘Rambo’ Ramsbottom and Jimmy Skuse, many of these objects have never been on display before. There were recreations of artists studios which were the highlight for me. One in particular was tiny, wide enough to sit two people side by side and not much longer. The small amount of surface space was covered in inks, drawings and tid-bits in equal measure. There was something about seeing someone else’s creative work space that was inspiring. I am not sure I could put my finger on it precisely, but the space seemed to radiate character and a commitment to the practice.

Image: National Maritime Museum Cornwall

An unexpected realisation

While the Tattoo exhibits were clearly the focus of the space, there was a creativity which seamlessly sat in the background to facilitate this. The curation was an unexpected source of design inspiration. There were scenarios involving glass cases of hanging tattoo guns forming a cloud of mechanical instruments. There were sound effects and lighting simulating historical environments and creating an immersive atmosphere. Lots of little details working together to produce a singular experience.


All in, an inspiring trip to our local tourist attraction.

Image: National Maritime Museum Cornwall /


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