By Anne Bokma

Kids may be out of the classroom but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of fascinating lessons to be learned during the summer months. For example, they can get schooled in the art, culture and history of tattoos at the Royal Ontario Museum’s current exhibition (on until Sept. 5 2016) on the ancient art of body painting.ROM Tattoo Ehibit - Tattoo-female-tattoo-artist

The show, titled Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art., is a visual stunner, featuring arresting images of all types of tattooed men and women — from indigenous people with tribal markings to sailors displaying their obligatory tattoos before setting out to sea and painted ladies who stunned Depression-era sideshow crowds with their elaborate head-to-toe markings. The life-size colourfully tattooed silicone body parts (arms, legs and torsos) that show off the handiwork of famous tattoo artists from around the world are sure to grab your child’s attention as will artifacts such as a crude tattoo machine ingeniously fashioned out of electrical wire and pens by prison inmates. They can hit a button to view short compelling videos of famous tattoo artists at work, including Horiyoshi III, the legendary Japanese master of the full-body tattoo, and a vintage 1950s film reel of Jesse Knight, the first female tattoo artist in England, inking a beauty mark on a client’s cheekbone.

Stories on the skin: ROM tattoo exhibit leaves its mark

The exhibit tells the story of the 5,000 year-old history of tattoos across continents and cultures and illustrates how the practice of tattooing evolved from the margins of society to the mainstream. Once considered a supreme act of rebellion (okay, some parents might still consider it such) the element of taboo has been (mostly) taken out of the tattoo. Heck, even our prime minister has one (a large stylized raven on his left arm designed by an Haida artist).

Tattoos were once used to send a message about the recipient’s status. For example, the ancient Arctic practice of tattooing vertical chin lines on a woman’s face showed she had the domestic skills to be a good wife and mother. The Ainu people of Japan were convinced tattoos could fend off disease and the Mohave of the lower Columbia River believed the souls of those without tattoos were not allowed to enter the “land of the dead.”

The tools of the tattoo trade are fascinating in themselves and range from painful looking serrated bone combs used by Polynesians who dipped them in ink and tapped them into the skin to the 1891 invention of the electronic tattoo machine, a device that revolutionized tattooing when it was patented by Irish immigrant Samuel O’Reilly, who ran a tattoo shop in New York City.

The exhibit touches only briefly on the dark side of tattoos — evident in the branding of slaves and numeric markings on the wrists of concentration camp inmates. It also illustrates how prison tattoos carried certain messages in the criminal underworld — a skull and crossbones meant you were in for murder, a cat meant you were a thief while stars represented the number of years spent behind bars and crosses the number of convictions.

Stories on the skin: ROM tattoo exhibit leaves its mark - Elderly Woman Tattoo

Children will no doubt enjoy learning about how heavily tattooed bodies were a featured attraction alongside the fire eaters and bearded ladies of the circus sideshows that travelled across North America in the 1920s and ‘30s. Lady Viola, who worked for Ringling Brothers appeared under the banner “The Most Beautiful Tattooed Lady in the World.”

Concerned this exhibit might be a bit too edgy for your little tyke? Grandparents and grade school kids were among the viewers on the day we visited. Children who are already reading will get the most out of the exhibit since there are lots of helpful descriptions next to the images and artifacts, which will make the experience more meaningful for them. Yes, there is some nudity in the photos of tattooed torsos and the silicone body parts are realistic in their, ah, fleshiness, but the information is presented in such a way that it’s more educational than titillating. One thing’s for sure — this is a museum exhibit where your kids definitely won’t be bored.