If I had to be honest, it all started a few years ago, maybe 2012 or 2013. I was a few steps out of the Wellesley subway station in Toronto when I noticed someone’s tattoo peeking out from under the frayed hem of their shorts. In big, bold, all-caps letters, it read “BUTCH,” but in my quick glance at the owner, I couldn’t figure out what gender they were (not that I needed to). The irony of that moment stuck in my head.
Fast forward to spring 2014 and I’m tasked with writing this article for Plinth on the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives’ Pride Month exhibitions. In the course of my research, I find out that the CLGA accepts exhibition proposals from people outside the institution. As someone who loves museums, I couldn’t help but think about what exhibitions I would like to see. Not that I would ever propose one myself; I am not a curator, after all.
A few weeks pass and I continue to think of exhibitions ideas. I keep going back to one in particular. That idea combined a personal love of tattoos with a professional interest in documentation of contemporary material culture and storytelling. I thought to myself, “If I submit a proposal, what’s the worst that could happen?” I was unemployed, recently out of my museum studies graduate program, and aching to do something in my field. I submitted a proposal and, to my surprise, it got accepted.
At this point I should say that while I have worked in museums for nearly a decade, I mainly focus on the collections side of things; I like making sure museum objects are safe, well documented, and easily accessible to those who need them. Curation, the act of gathering things to present a central idea, was something with which I have limited experience and something that, frankly, I never thought I would be doing. Why, I wondered, did I find myself wanting to conceptualize and curate a show? And then it occurred to me; I was drawn to this topic because putting this exhibition together is less an act of curation and more about creating a space for people to tell their own stories.
Marked: Tattoos and Queer Identities, the exhibition I proposed, would explore how tattoos literally mark a person’s skin, but also mark an important memory or feeling in a person’s life. Unlike other forms of material culture, tattoos are inherently short-lived and much of their histories are lost. I was interested in exploring these histories, which usually don’t find homes in the archives or museums that preserve other forms of memory and story. And, based on my experiences working with museum audiences, I thought others would be interested in this too; it would be a relatable topic that would get people excited to go to a museum.
A few weeks after I got the go-ahead from the CLGA, I got a job offer in a museum, which I excitedly accepted. The only hitch was that it was across the country from the CLGA. How do you plan and set up an exhibition from across the country – especially when you’re in the midst of starting a new job elsewhere? Facing this challenge, I started with the core of the exhibition: people’s stories. I created a Facebook page for Marked and sent the word out to my social circles. I needed examples of queer tattoos, and here my personal connection to the exhibition’s themes was a powerful starting point: a rainbow tattoo I had became the logo for Marked. For the first story, I chose my gummy bear tattoos because I thought would get the most smiles, and was the most inclusive of all forms of queerness since it was not specific to any gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, or sexual orientation (what some consider the four facets to how people define their identity; see The Genderbread Person).
With a pretty cool logo and my story as the catalyst, soon I was getting stories and pictures from friends, friends of friends, and complete strangers. And best of all, the material people provided was both incredibly diverse and widely relatable. Along with these submissions I had already secured frames for the exhibition, prepared a marketing package, was working on the intro text, and had an opening date. My dream of creating a safe space for people to relate to each other through tattoos was coming together and my goal of providing a diverse perspective didn’t need to be compromised.
Outside of my 9-5 I am still planning the exhibition, which is going up in three weeks at the time I write this. I am extremely thankful to everyone who has submitted stories and tattoos for Marked. As a first-time guest curator, I am also incredibly appreciative of everyone at the CLGA for helping me through this process and giving me the opportunity to create a platform where we can celebrate our stories through the art of tattooing. As a curator I hoped to create something welcoming where people can see themselves in what’s on the museum walls, and therefore see the value in their stories and the lives they live. This is important to me because museums can sometimes feel distant and irrelevant, or at worst elitist and alienating to their visitors. How often do people go to museums and see things like Renaissance tapestries, Victorian furniture, high fashion, or illuminated manuscripts, only to walk out of the museum and not know how that relates to their lives? It’s my job, and perhaps the job of every museum, to make sure the visitor is better for having been to their exhibit. And with this mindset, my initial nervousness has been replaced by sheer excitement. After all, I had wanted to see an exhibition about queer tattoos and soon I, along with others, will be able to.
Mark your calendars! Marked: Tattoos and Queer Identity will open in Toronto, Canada at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives from April 9th to May 29th,, 2015. You can see the photos and read the stories at facebook.com/MarkedExhibition.