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Forest Gate exhibition about female tattooists opens

PUBLISHED: 10:00 01 March 2016 | UPDATED: 11:31 01 March 2016

Melina Merlin is the curator of Under My Skin. Picture: Andrew Firth

Melina Merlin is the curator of Under My Skin. Picture: Andrew Firth

Firthphoto

With one in five adults now inked – even Samantha Cameron famously has a blue dolphin on her ankle – tattooing is no longer the subversive act it once was.

The exhibition shares the personal experiences of women who have chosen to have a tattoo.  Picture: Andrew BakerThe exhibition shares the personal experiences of women who have chosen to have a tattoo. Picture: Andrew Baker

Today, often the most intriguing part of someone’s body art is discovering the story behind it, something Melina Merlin hopes to achieve with her new exhibition Under My Skin, which opens at The Gate library tonight from 6-8pm.

The show explores the ink of 19 women – 15 of whom will feature tonight with the rest to be added at The Forest Tavern over the next week – through photographs taken by Andrew Firth, and written explanations summarised by Melina, who features herself.

“After you read the blurb and you look back at the photographs it should shift your perception,” explains Melina, its beautifully-inked creator and a mum-of-two from Forest Gate.

The array of tattoos are as complex as the women whose bodies they possess, says the 45-year-old, who has interviewed a number of women over the last 18 months in preparation for the show and a forthcoming book of the same name.

There is Natalie Radmore, a PE teacher from Essex, who has Lego figure tattoos and also a shark in tribute to the surfer Bethany Hamilton who lost an arm in a shark attack.

Another woman has a giant phoenix on her back which she says “empowers” her while yet another, who Melina met on a London street, has an orange coy fish that has been cocooned.

“The woman told me that she was being followed by the spirit of a dead child,” Melina says. The resulting tattoo, recommended to her by a Buddhist monk, was chosen to signify comfort for the deceased infant.

Not all tattoos have poignant pasts however. Laura Marsh, from north London, describes her body art as “frivolous and fun”.

“A bit of the soul is on the outside,” Melina explains to me when I ask why people choose to tattoo. “I reclaim my body through my ink.”

On her left arm is an arresting owl – “because I’m Greek and it has a long history for us” – in addition to stars that represent her hometown of San Francisco; family and heritage featuring significantly in all of her designs.

“You think you have an idea of what you think of me but then as I walk away, I have a globe on my leg full of colour,” she says, comparing the various artwork to the different parts of her personality.

“One woman says she feels like she heals when the tattoo heals. It is very meditative and that is part of the process,” Melina says, adding that for others it’s an adrenaline rush.

Whatever the reason, she hopes Under the Skin will shed further insight into inking and break a few taboos at the same time.

Under My Skin is the first exhibition to honour Women’s History Month at The Gate and The Forest Tavern. Runs until April 30.


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