Roundup: Reviews of Freaks & Flash at Intuit

Editor’s note: So an interesting piece of trivia is how many reviews this show got, including two FNA’s who covered this show. So below is Lee Ann Norman’s, then Ariel Pittman’s, then a clip from Alicia Eler’s blog, and Time Out’s version. It’s like 100 views of Mount Fuji. Must be the demographic.

By Lee Ann Norman

"Freaks and Flash" at Intuit

"Freaks and Flash" at Intuit

I don’t have any tattoos.  I don’t even have birthmarks or noticeable scars.  Some random freckles and the like, but nothing that nature never intended.  I’ve heard that getting tattoos can be addictive, and even though I don’t think I would fair well with prolonged pain, I’ve always been curious.  Intuit’s exhibition (through January 2010) is a good place to begin exploring the history of Western tattooing in its heyday.  The show is primarily Midwestern focused (though international examples are perspectives are featured as well).  Chicago-based artists and collections are the focus, however, along with substantial public programming to give more depth and insight into how tattooing has gone from part of subculture to a mainstream practice.  The main gallery is filled with examples of early tattoo “flash” (the design drawings for tattoos) and circus sideshow banners representing tattooed performers and other sorts of ‘freaks” up until the early 1970s.

"Freaks and Flash" at Intuit

"Freaks and Flash" at Intuit

The West has always objectified and displayed bodies that are different in some way or another: bodies that are not white, bodies that are malformed by nature or man, bodies that show extremes.   It’s not surprising to learn, then, in this exhibition that in the West, people tattooed themselves with the intention of displaying themselves, performing, and entertaining for money (which was very good by the way).  Being part of the sideshow became an industry, and a viable way to make a living for many poor and working-class whites.  The irony of this appropriation isn’t lost, considering that in other parts of the world and in some Native American cultures at home, tattooing was tied to things like cultural identity and rites of passage.  In a time before Geraldo Rivera and Jerry Springer, people would come from miles to see these performers and hear their tales of survival and being marked by “savages” and “exotic others.”  Perhaps it is just human nature to like to watch.

"Freaks and Flash" at Intuit

"Freaks and Flash" at Intuit

Freaks & Flash @ Intuit

Ariel Pittman
Freaks & Flash is an immensely pleasurable exploration of the vernacular history of tattoos curated by Amy Herlihy and Jan Petry.

The walls of the Intuit gallery are thick with Flash sheets drawn by iconic tattoo artists Sailor Jerry, Tatts Thomas and George Burchett among many others. Providing a contrast in scale and media, the flash sheets are interspersed with several large hand-painted posters depicting tattooed freaks and sideshow performers, all women. In the current moment, tattoos have transitioned from a mark of freakdom or indicator of a military or prison sentence, to a more widely accepted form of personal modification and expression.

This show is an important opportunity to elucidate the rich history of tattooing as a folk art, tied with various social codes and experiences, while not ignoring the illicit aspects of its past. As someone who likes tattoos and has spent many hours looking at images of historical flash for inspiration, I was surprised by the contrasts between the highly racist and militant imagery of the Sailor Jerry designs, and the elegant, sophisticated, and sensual celebrations of love, women and God by artists like Joseph Darpel. Darpel, who was himself a tattooed wonder (courtesy of Bert Grimm) met his wife, the knife-throwing Mabel, while on the road as a human attraction. Later, they set up a traveling tattoo shop together that roamed the Midwest and Texas. Darpel’s story, and the names credited to much of the art on view in Freaks & Flash, confronts the stereotype of early tattoo art as something made exclusively by and for men.

And more reviews of the Intuit Tatoo show by either currrent or former editors!

From Alicia Eler’s new blog:

There’s one show I want to see more than any, however, and it’s at The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Call me a sucker for anything tattoo-related these days, because that’s what I am. See my recent post about my latest tattoo, and my quest for a tattoo blogger. Intuit’s show Freaks and Flash (September 11- January 9, 2010) takes a look at the history of modern Western tattooing by curating a collection of tattoo flash drawings (the drawings that the tattoo artist bases the actual tattoo on) next to circus banners of tattoo-covered performers. I’m anxious to meet curators Anna Friedman Herlihy and Jan Petry.

Now Lauren Weinberg for Time Out! She liked it the least.


No one was allowed to take pictures, so we are all working with the same press photos. Which is the very reason why we like to snap our own.