Artistic project documents tattoos on elderly men

Exhibition legitimises the value of an art

Pierre Portelli and Georgina Portelli.

Pierre Portelli and Georgina Portelli.

There was a time when tattoos were associated with dockworkers and seamen and presented a whole different meaning to the one we attribute to ink today. Ramona Depares catches up with Pierre Portelli, the brains behind REL•INK, a project that documents tattoo art of elderly males from the early 20th century.

Tattoos – everyone has them nowadays, from the 18-year-old student serving burgers for some extra pocket money to your 40-something-year-old hip lawyer, albeit maybe less obviously so than the student.

The project focuses on tattoos on elderly males.The project focuses on tattoos on elderly males.

The stigma attached to ink is no more and, corporate regulation wear aside, everyone is happy to flaunt their chosen designs. It wasn’t always like this, of course. Until some decades ago, the art was mostly associated with sailors, waterfront workers, prison inmates and the criminal underworld, especially in Malta. It was what you’d call a ‘Strait Street kind of fashion’.

This is exactly what REL•INK, an artistic project that is the brainchild of Pierre Portelli, delves into. The project, looks at the tattoo art of Maltese males aged 75 years and over, who worked on ships or on the waterfront such as stevedores, fishermen, longshoremen, dockers, sail makers, sailors, stewards, coalmen, firemen, Royal Navy service men, Merchant Navy men, firemen, stokers, labourers or in related occupations.

REL•INK explores tattoos and their significance in the day to day life of these port workers, labourers or seafarers at a time when the maritime sector was the mainstay of Malta's colonial economy. It researches and documenting the tattoo practices of the Maltese, the motivating factors for the acquisition of tattoos and to bring to the notice of the public early 20th century Maltese tattoo artists and their handiwork.

"A particularly interesting find while conducting research at the National Archive of Malta, is the fact that tattoos were included in passport documents and referenced as visible distinguishing marks. The Mediterranean port city of Marseille in France was a popular destination for seamen and waterfront workers seeking a better life or seasonal work in the early part of the 20th century,” Pierre says.

The project also researches these migratory links and points of engagement with Marseille, looking at references to tattooing and the Maltese from French archival and literary sources.

“We focus on various aspects related to maritime history, including employment, economic and maritime traditions and the movement of seamen and port workers from the 1900s up to World War II. Our objective is to document 20th century tattoo designs in Malta to build a digital archive that will feature as an open source resource,” Pierre continues.

In order to present as full a picture as possible, Pierre and his team are also seeking the assistance of the public and are asking anyone who might have elderly relatives with tattoos from the period who would like to share their stories, photographs or even drawings, to get in touch.

A particularly interesting find is the fact that tattoos were included in passport documents and referenced as visible distinguishing marks

"We were spurred on by the realisation that we were fast losing the opportunity to document the designs and narratives of early to mid 20th century tattoo art. This is a shame from a historical and anthropological perspective, a community perspective and from a design perspective. Initiating an image bank was imperative. We therefore partnered with the Maritime Museum of Malta and the Department of Library Information and Archive Science at UOM to carry out this research."

This project also researches these migratory links and points of engagement with Marseille, looking at references to tattooing and the Maltese from French archival and other literary sources .

"The ultimate objective  is to document 20th century tattoo designs in the Maltese population with the aim of building a digital archive that will feature aspects of project related documentation and gathered resource for eventual hosting on the Open Access Repository of the University of Malta as a designated collection for research purposes. We plan to further evolve this into an ongoing citizen science project that will hopefully keep adding to the collection."

The presentation of these initial research findings are being exhibited at the Malta Maritime Museum The project also involves a contemporary visual art intervention. Contemporary art practitioners Sarah Micallef, Andrew Rizzo and French tattoo artist Sailor Roman have been invited to engage with the discovered material and create new works that will be presented in discourse with artifacts from the collection at the Maritime Museum.

What the focus on males? The research, Pierre says, tries to reconstruct a picture of a marginal and frowned upon practice in a society that was dependent on a maritime industry. Most of the employees were male, as were the thousands of migrants or sea farers going to other port cities, searching for work.

"Tattooing in females was a double taboo, as it held a further negative connotation pertaining to prostitution. The archival research in fact predominantly shows that tattooing in the late 1800s to the mid-20th century to be mostly a male practice. We have, however, found some evidence of tattoo practice in females from an oral history account and late 19th century Maltese prison records."

All elderly participants to the project described negative family reactions to their tattoo acquisition, even if their fathers themselves had tattoos. Some reactions were more severe than others. Some participants expressed regret pertaining to the indelibility aspect, the anxieties engendered by its potential effect on the prospect of employment, and the taboos associated with the practice in what was definitely a more judgmental society.

"The greatest challenge was actually finding elderly participants from the time period we were looking at. There aren’t that very many over 80s with tattoos still around. The elderly are very proactive collaborators in this project, generously willing to share their experiences. We have conducted interviews both in the community and at St Vincent De Paule Residence. We have about 27 participants, the eldest being a centenarian and the relative youngest nearing seventy. This is a promising start to a project we hope can keep growing.

Rel-Ink runs until December 31 at the Maritime Museum in Vittoriosa. The curatorial team includes Pierre Portelli, Liam Gauci, Curator Malta Maritime Museum and Georgina Portelli. The Research team is led by Portelli with Milena Dobreva and assisted by Maria Micallef. The project is supported by Heritage Malta, the University of Malta and the Malta Arts Fund. Anyone wishing to participate in the project may get in touch by sending an e-mail to or on 99647189.

This feature was first published on the Sunday Circle magazine.

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