Naughty Whale Bone Art Making Waves in Vancouver

An example of scrimshaw art.  Photo credit: Rusty Clark | Flickr

An example of scrimshaw art. Photo credit: Rusty Clark | Flickr

Much ado has been made lately about some saucy, 150-year-old artifacts at the otherwise staid Vancouver Maritime Museum.

The museum, which is dedicated to all things seafaring, is currently showing Tattoos & Scrimshaw, an exhibit on the art of the sailor.

Tattoos, now a ubiquitous badge of hipster pride, originated in the West after sailors came back from exotic destinations like Polynesia, where the locals practiced elaborate body art.  Meanwhile, scrimshaw refers to ornate carvings made in a whale’s bones or teeth, once a popular pastime on long whaling trips.

Dozens of historic examples of this whale bone art are on display at the museum.  And – since sailors will be sailors – quite a few of them are decidedly R-rated, offering peeps at mermaids, visions of distant lovers and other scintillating scenes.  

“Scrimshankers were young guys (and) a lot of the themes are returning to port,” explained museum director Simon Robinson in a recent interview with the Vancouver Sun.  “The erotica is part of the craft.”

The exhibit was thrust into the spotlight last month, after a local mom visiting the museum with her two young sons discovered the “whale bone porn” and shared her concerns with a local newspaper.  Subsequently, the museum posted a sign warning that some images may be inappropriate for young viewers.

Photo credit: colink | Flickr

Photo credit: colink | Flickr

But all the controversy has only heightened interest in the unique exhibit.  Normally the domain of retirees and young parents, the museum has been drawing a steady stream of young and tattooed Vancouverites of late, eager for a glimpse at the whale bone burlesque, as well as some historical perspective on the art of inking.

The exhibit traces the evolution of tattooing, from its “discovery” by Captain James Cook in Tahiti to its spread throughout maritime culture (the iconic “sailor” tattoo) and its ultimate acceptance as part of contemporary pop culture.

Tattoos & Scrimshaw: The Art of the Sailor is on display at the Vancouver Maritime Museum throughout the spring and summer.  The museum is housed in a large A-frame building within Vanier Park, on the the southwest bank of False Creek.

Anyone been to the Tattoos & Scrimshaw exhibit?  What did you think? 

For more updates on Vancouver and beyond, follow me on Twitter @RemyScalza

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