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Friday, 28 February 2014 12:30

From tattoos to jewelry, human adornments explored at Whitewater art show

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Skye Schaffer and her father, “Cherokee” Chuck Schaffer, are tattoo artists and enthusiasts from Chuck’s Body Art in Whitewater. Skye also is an art student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. They are among those giving presentations during the “Body Adornment” exhibit at the Whitewater Cultural Arts Center. Skye Schaffer and her father, “Cherokee” Chuck Schaffer, are tattoo artists and enthusiasts from Chuck’s Body Art in Whitewater. Skye also is an art student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. They are among those giving presentations during the “Body Adornment” exhibit at the Whitewater Cultural Arts Center. Terry Mayer/staff

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- How we adorn our bodies says a lot about who we are, where we’ve been, and who we aspire to be.

Body adornment may exemplify beauty, power, ceremony or social status. Jewelry may be worn to mourn or remember a loved one; tattoos may mark an important achievement or represent a specific time in one’s life.

All of these embellishments are part of the upcoming Whitewater Arts Alliance exhibit "Body Adornment."

Read the current edition here:

Tattoo artist "Bear" Hanson will be one of the artists present at the exhibit’s opening Sunday, March 9, at the Whitewater Cultural Arts Center. The exhibit is an eclectic showcase of body art and embellishment from Victorian jewelry to cultural ceremony, piercings to tattoos. A video of body adornment in cultures around the world will run continuously during the show. Ceremonial pieces, jewelry and tattoos will be represented in actuality, on film and in photographs. A series of related presentations will take place throughout the exhibit’s run in March and April.

"Tattooing: Decisions and Designs" is the focus of Hanson’s presentation. Hanson, of Fontana, said people get tattoos for many reasons, some not so good -- but those choices also become part of them.

"You get a tattoo and later you can say, ‘OK, this was going on in my life then.’ Those memories will never fade."

There’s a lot of bad reasons to get a tattoo -- showing gang affiliation is one of them. And there are bad choices in tattoo placement even when the reason for getting them is good.

"I had one young man come in who really wanted a rosary tattoo, but he wanted it around his eye," Hanson said. "OK, he’s a religious guy, that’s good, but on your face -- probably not a good idea." He didn’t do the tattoo.

While body art on your face certainly is one way to get someone’s attention,  jewelry has the power to do the same thing.

Think of the American flag lapel pins you saw so many people wear after 9-11.

The symbol is powerful. Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of state to Bill Clinton, understood that symbolism well before the terrorist attacks. Her brooches and pins are the subject of one presentation during the exhibit.

Marion Burrows, a retired English teacher from Parker High School in Janesville, will present "The Brooches of Madeleine Albright."

"While I certainly don’t think we have to shove patriotism in an adversary’s face, I think she (Albright) realized she could make a political statement with it," Burrows said. The 2009-’10 traveling exhibit "Read My Pins" and the accompanying book by Albright is the basis for Burrow’s presentation on Albright’s jewelry.

For example, when Albright criticized Saddam Hussein, an Iraqi newspaper retaliated by referring to her as a serpent. In response, Albright wore a serpent pin to her next meeting with the Iraqis. She wore a jeweled bug pin when meeting with the Russian foreign minister after it was discovered that the Russian secret service had attempted to bug her office.

Drawing from tradition

To wear or not to wear, that is the question. Is it better to wear your emotions on your sleeve (or as a sleeve tattoo) or to discreetly contain your lover’s lock of hair in a locket worn close to your heart? The Victorians had a  set of rules for jewelry, including the exact meaning of a motif -- a dog symbolized fidelity, for example -- and the proper time and placement of the jewelry. Many of today’s funeral customs began with the Victorians.

Tattoos also have a historical background, of course. But today’s young people have taken to them more as a sign of personal expression than as a proscribed decoration. For example, a full-sleeve tattoo, covering the arm from the top of the shoulder to the wrist, can indicate the hope of a permanent reward to be achieved by the wearer who, literally and figuratively, endures the pain needed to reach that permanent reward.

For University of Wisconsin-Whitewater art major and tattoo artist Skye Schaffer, tattoos not only reflect her life, but are an important link to her tattooing "family."

The daughter of tattoo artist "Cherokee" Chuck Schaffer of Whitewater, Skye said her apprenticeship with her dad is part of a larger group, The Gypsy Tour, founded in 1979 by tattoo artist R.J. Rosini. You become a member of The Gypsy Tour by invitation only. The group of tattoo artists usually numbers about 13 at any one time, though there are hundreds of past members. They get together for tattoo conventions and rallies -- the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is one of their busiest times. Skye’s dad became part of the tour family when he was invited in by Rosini in 1993.

"I consider it the highlight of my career and I’ve been doing this for 27 years," Chuck said.

Skye hopes to be invited in one day, but for now she plies her skill at Chuck’s Body Art in Whitewater. In the meantime, she is learning from her tattoo family.

"Every time I watch one of them do a tattoo or when I get a tattoo, I learn something about them, their technique and the art form. Everybody has their specialty," she said.

Father and daughter will give the first presentation during the exhibit, talking about the history of tattoos and showing some tattoo equipment from the 1920s.

"It may or may not have been used on people," Chuck said. "You know, a lot of farmers used tattoo equipment, too."

Farmers still use tattoos on their livestock, not as decoration, but as a form of permanent identification, although this is being replaced with newer devices such as microchips. The Maori and Samoan peoples used tattoos for both decoration and identification. The Polynesian history of tattoo goes back 2,000 years, with different island groups having their own unique designs, making it possible to identify a person’s origin from his tattoo.

The PBS special, "Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of  Polynesian Tattoo," was the impetus for Katherine Conover’s interest in putting the "Body Adornment" exhibit together.

Conover put together a video about tattoo art around the world for the exhibit. She also developed a teaching unit on that form of art for the International Academy in Janesville, where she was teaching at the time. Now retired from teaching, Conover is in her third year as a board member for the Whitewater Arts Alliance.

Conover and fellow board member Anne Coburn became the coordinators of the exhibit through a sequence of serendipitous connections.

"Anne’s sister, Lissa Flemming, is also going to do a workshop, as is Neta (Ron). So both Anne’s and my personal connections have come into play," Conover said.

She is friends with Neta Ron, a UW-Whitewater art student from Israel, who suggested that Teresa Faris, metalsmithing professor at UW-Whitewater, join the planning group.

Faris will give a presentation on the ceremonial jewelry of the Victorian age and beyond.

"I am specifically interested in the way in which humans use nonhuman animals, literally or conceptually, to act as an offering to a god or as a symbol/metaphor of human condition," Faris said.

Grief and love, for example, are often symbolized by choice of design and material. This type of ceremonial jewelry has existed for thousands of years, she said.

"Through it, humans are better able to understand past and present cultures." 

Even today, people decorate themselves in a certain way because of this link to historical superstitions, often brought on by religion, according to Faris.

"I believe that the art of adorning the body is important as a cultural record," she said.

That permanent cultural record is the same reason Faris is drawn to working with metal -- it’s more permanent than other art forms.

And it’s the reason "Bear" Hanson is drawn to tattooing.

"It’s the storybook of our life that we wear," he said.

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