Temporary Tattoos Make Lasting Connections

November 17, 2016
– 03 Custom-made temporary tattoos of objects from the museums’ collections were a highlight of a recent Student Late Night event. Photos: Susan Young.

During last month’s Harvard Student Late Night event, a small group of students approached staff members with an urgent question. Pointing to their forearms, where each student was sporting a temporary tattoo of Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin (1888), they asked: “Where can we see the original?”

This active engagement with the collections was exactly what the museums’ Division of Academic and Public Programs had hoped for. (By the way, the original is in the Wertheim Gallery, Room 1220, on Level 1.) But while the organizers knew the temporary tattoos would be a hit, they were nevertheless surprised by just how popular they were. The tattoos were custom-made for the night by the Brooklyn-based company Tattly.

“People were really excited about the Tattlys: they put them on their arms and even their faces,” said Hyemi Park ’17, a student guide for the museums who attended the event. “It was a cute way to show you were at the event.”

Added Correna Cohen, the curatorial fellow for the Division of Academic and Public Programs, who assisted students in applying the Tattlys: “There was a lot of glee. My favorite part was just seeing how thrilled people got when they realized what the tattoos were—there’s definitely a sense of fun about them.”

Besides the Van Gogh Self-Portrait, three other works were available in temporary ink: Carlos Amorales’s Triangle Constellation (2015), Sand Container in the Form of a Crocodile (c. 1575–1600), and Hexagonal Tile with Floral Pattern (1520–40).

“We wanted to do something fun and festive for the students,” said Erin Northington, the museums’ manager of student engagement programs, noting that the event served as a welcome back to campus, a celebration of the special exhibition Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia, and an important moment to introduce Martha Tedeschi, the museums’ new Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director. With approximately 1,000 students in attendance and the building at capacity, the night was a success, and the tattoos were “wildly popular,” Northington said.

From Object to Ink

The quirky tattoos came about through a fruitful collaboration between the museums’ staff and students. Over the summer, Northington asked three students who were closely involved with the museums (student guides, two of whom were also SHARP interns) to nominate tattoo-worthy objects from the collections. It was a tall order: they were looking for well-recognized works as well as lesser-known stars. The objects needed to come from across the collections, represent a cross-section of media, time periods, styles, shapes, and colors, and appeal to a wide audience.

Northington took the students’ shortlist of objects and shared it with the curators of the collections for feedback. She also worked with the Design department to ensure that image rights were secured and high-quality photography was available. Eventually, four finalists were identified, and Tattly worked its magic.

Must-Have Accessories

There’s no substitute for an original work, but Tattly’s reproductions impressed staff and students alike. The clean, simple lines of Triangle Constellation cut a striking, whimsical profile—recognizable to anyone who has walked beneath the real sculpture while passing through the Calderwood Courtyard. The tattoo of Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait retains its vibrant green background and individual brushstrokes, despite its significantly reduced size. Likewise, the Hexagonal Tile tattoo, which is hardly larger than a quarter, nevertheless dazzles in its detail and intricacy. And the Crocodile, a three-dimensional silver gilt piece, still seems to gleam and glisten, and grab attention, even in two dimensions.

For many students, accessorizing with a Tattly (or a few) was an essential element of the Student Late Night experience. The Materials Lab served in part as a temporary tattoo parlor for the night.

Many students then took off in search of the original objects in the galleries, Instagramming or posting Snapchat photos of their Tattlys alongside the original works. In the courtyard, students could sip one of four mocktails that were playfully named for the Tattlys (such as the “Van Goghito” and the “Croctail”).

“The Tattlys helped set the tone for the whole evening,” said Northington. “And I loved the idea of people wearing the tattoos to class the next morning. It was a way to extend the life of the event, and to bring the museums out onto campus.”

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