Tattoo: Identity Through Ink

June 1, 2019 - April 26, 2020

Brock's Tattoo

For more than 5,000 years, tattoos have been used to document the history of humanity one painful mark at a time. Spanning cultures and continents, tattooing has adorned European nobility and Native Americans, celebrities and Scandinavian sailors, punks and presidents, and seemingly everyone else in between. Today, tattoos have never been more popular.

Tattoos are so much more than decoration. Tattoos are a powerful visual language of the skin, and, like texts, they permanently record memories, life stories, and personal achievements.

Tattoo: Identity Through Ink tells the story of tattoos and the people who have them. We’ll explore the ways individual and group identities are formed, reinforced, and celebrated through tattoos. Of course there is a Scandinavian connection–with celebrated artists like Norwegian Johan Frederik Knudsen and Norwegian-American Amund Dietzel, the question of whether or not Vikings had tattoos, and the rise of a whole modern Neo-Nordic style of tattooing. But the exhibition also allows us to explore more deeply the traditions of body ornamentation in other cultures and our connections to them.

The exhibit will include large and immersive photos and videos and original art and artifacts from around the world. You’ll have the opportunity to design and draw your own tattoos on silicone arms. There will be a working tattoo studio and at a few certain times during the run, tattoo artists will demonstrate their art live. Temporary tattoos inspired by objects in the collection will be for sale in the Museum Store.

Tattoo Talks:
In partnership with Luther College Nordic Studies Department and Chemistry Department.

September 19, 2019
Tattooing in the Ancient World
Lars Krutak, Tattoo Anthropologist, Exhibit Guest Curator

October 29, 2019
Tattoos, Medievalism, and White Nationalism
Lindsey Row-Heyveld, Professor of English, Luther College

November 24, 2019
The Future of Tattoos
Carson Bruns, Professor of Chemistry, University of Colorado, Boulder


In the Museum Store:
Temporary Tattoos inspired by objects in the collection here.

View pictures from the opening event here. Check back for more events and details.

An exciting aspect of this exhibit is the partnerships formed in it’s making.

One of those partners is guest-curator Dr. Lars Krutak, a Research Associate at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Krutak is a scholar of body art and has authored four books on the subject of Indigenous body modification. He also co-curated a similar tattoo exhibition that toured to the Field Museum and the LA Museum of Natural History.

Another partner is Brock Swenson, owner of Brock’s Valhalla Tattoos in Decorah. Swenson has established himself as one of the country’s leading tattoo artists, receiving international acclaim and winning some of the industry’s leading awards.

Toppling Goliath, one of the premiere craft beer producers in the world, is launching a new brew, “Valkyrie Strike,” in conjunction with the exhibition. Founded by Clark and Barb Lewey in 2009 in Decorah, Toppling Goliath has become world-renown for IPAs and barrel-aged stouts. Toppling Goliath beers have been named number one in the world by Ratebeer. Brock Swenson designed the distinctive label for Valkyrie Strike, which was brewed with a heritage Norwegian yeast strain called Kevik. Valkyrie Strike IPA bottles will be sold exclusively at Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. and Vesterheim’s Museum Store as supplies last.

We are, of course, deeply grateful to exhibit sponsors Nick and Courtney Rowley, who have made the entire exhibit possible.

Do you want to be part of the exhibit? Post a photo and story of your tattoo on Instagram or Twitter and tag it with #vesterheimink. If you’re on Facebook, tag Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and use #vesterheimink. Posts with this hashtag will be shared live in the gallery and here on our website!