Explore Salem’s connected world through tattoo art
Funded by the Salem office of Public Art, in the summer of 2015 I created a companion piece to “Connected By Sea” for the pedestrian centre of Salem, a temporary installation of a painted walking path on the paved surfaces throughout the central Old Town Hall pedestrian area, highlighting motifs from the various cultures connected to Salem by trade history or immigration, using design elements from either tattooing or trade goods, especially those in the Peabody Essex Museum’s collection locally.
The City of Salem has a very rich history as a seaport, one of the most significant in the Northeastern US.
There the ships of our merchant marine feet, (like the Friendship of Salem whose replica is now docked off of Derby Street), and the members of the East India Marine Society who ultimately founded the Peabody Essex Museum, brought back to Salem “a diverse collection of objects from the northwest coast of America, Asia, Africa, Oceania, India and elsewhere.” –PEM
Salem was settled by fishermen and later grew to be deeply involved with the rest of the world through a thriving
commercial trade, which helped to drive the economy and prosperity of the whole region (along with whaling, fishing, farming, and later manufacturing). The Peabody Essex Museum has long been one of my favorites; it creates an impressive educational journey using cultural artifacts and trade goods to introduce the places and peoples we were connected to by trade.
In “Connected by Sea,” my installation at the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina, I was making this same point about the city of Boston: Despite a mostly white (in their case Revolutionary) canonical history, the Boston of our past also had a deep connection to other world cultures through seafaring and trade. It was important to me to create a more inclusive view of our history, emphasizing the experience and contributions of people often ignored in our mainstream tourist stories.
In that piece, now part of the Harbor Walk at HarborArts, I stained tattoo-themed designs into the surface of the main pier, woven together into a thousand-foot-long “sleeve,” honoring the different cultures that contributed to making us who we are today. The connecting theme of tattoo art worked well because it was (here) historically a sailor’s art form, which American and British sailors actually learned from their visits to Polynesia. It resonated with the shipyard workers who still labor on that site, and the visitors and marina residents who may have sailed to the same far-flung places.
Some of the motifs that will be most evocative, I think, include Native Americans, the first nations to inhabit this land, people who also often served as crew on our whaling fleets. The museum has a great collection of source material, and I partnered with Elizabeth James Perry, local traditional artist of the Wampanoag tribe, to create a New England Native American design specifically for this project. Next, New England Sailors, best evoked through the language of traditional sailor tattoos, which also has a lot of resonance in current popular art and tattooing.
International cultures of note of course include Oceania, India, China, and Japan, and the Pacific Northwest, these having a lot of source material and synergy at the Museum, among others.
Another exciting piece is the colorful Tsimshian killer-whale design by Alaska native Ben Cantil, now on the east side of Old Town Hall, which represents the people of the Pacific Northwest, where our ships traveled to get sea otter pelts for the China trade. More on this on the website.
Visitors walk the pathways from Essex Street down Derby Square and along Artists’ Row, following a progression of motifs or simply discovering one after another. I created a Mobile friendly website to help visitors learn more about the significance of each while exploring the area.
“A Historical Tattoo For the City of Salem“
By Chris Ricci, Creative Salem, May 8, 2015.
“This is a project that will give people a chance to understand the history of Salem in a new and provocative way.”
“…an artistic insight the likes of which Salem has never seen.”
“Artist’s sidewalk paintings in Salem influenced by local history“
By Will Broaddus, Salem News, May 20, 2015.
“Salem Pedestrian Brick Walk Getting a Tattoo“ Salem Main Streets, May 17, 2015.