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Media Review

Ancient Ink

The History Channel aired an episode of The Works that I called the best overall tattoo documentary ever produced for television. Apparently, quality shows on tattoos are becoming a norm across the board, with a few exceptions such as MSNBC’s Hooked: Tattoos Head to Toe which aimed for the old standard of shock. The History Channel again has opted to go the route of quality with their latest offering: a 2-hour special called Ancient Ink.

Ancient Ink takes us on a journey around the world to review different styles and cultures of the tattoo world. The show’s host, Craig Reynolds, is at the same time on a journey to add to his own tattoo work. The fact that Reynolds is getting tattoos during his travels further legitimizes the respectful approach the show takes in showing the audience the world of tattoos. Where some previous shows have had hosts who are basically outsiders who cringe at the tattoos or other body modifications being performed, this show has a host eager to go under the needles in New Zealand, Hawaii, Japan and California. This combined with the in-depth historical look at each tattoo method and culture proves to be a formula for a great show that provides something for both the curious viewer and the hardcore tattooed person.

The show tries to find a good transition from one world location to another, allowing the show to flow on in a natural way rather than being broken into separate segments with hard endings. Craig Reynolds starts off by visiting the Maori people of New Zealand, a logical starting point for a historical look at tattoos. The in-depth look at the history, methods, style and meanings of the tattoos goes beyond anything I’ve ever seen before on television. Where many shows will quickly review the same exact historic points, we get a look into deeper history in this show – with the origins and near demise of the style of Maori tattoos all covered in the course of the host’s journey to an actual tribe, where we see the ritual side and get explanations of the meanings of Maori and the moko tattoos.

We then transition to Hawaii through the linking of the two cultures with Polynesian influences. The show gives us a very detailed overview of the instruments and methods used in Hawaiian tattoos before Reynolds adds his second piece of work obtained during the show.

Then it’s off to Tulane University in Louisiana to look at ancient remains of tattooed mummies. Again, many shows have mentioned ancient tattoos, but here we get a longer look at them and discuss why these ancient people might have been tattooed.

One of the more interesting segments of an overall interesting show came next, as Reynolds traveled to Santa Barbara, California to learn about sewed-in tattoos. This was something that I do not recall ever seeing on any previous tattoo special, so learning about this method of tattooing was intriguing to me. The show allows us to witness a modern application of a tattoo using this style.

Japan is a required stop for any tattoo show that covers to some extent the history of tattoos. Of course, Japan means Yakuza full body suits and the stigma that still follows tattoos in that country. However, again Ancient Ink explores the history to a greater extent – where other shows mention the ties to Yakuza gang culture, this show explains how tattoos came to be a part of that culture. We also see the preserved tattooed skins and learn that they have been, and might still be, sold on the black market. Again, Reynolds sits down for a tattoo, this time from the legendary Hiroyoshi III.

Then the criminal side of tattoos takes Reynolds to Phoenix, Arizona and a visit to a prison. The show gives us a look at a prison-made tattoo gun and a contraband search of the prisoner’s cells. We also see some amazing prison tattoo work that looks like it could have been done at a top studio rather than in a jail cell. Meanings and consequences of certain prison tattoos are also reviewed during this portion of the show.

Tattoo removal is then covered as a means for ex-cons to erase their artwork and move on with life. This is the one area where the show didn’t really go beyond what other shows have given us in terms of explaining how removal works.

Reynolds then travels to North Carolina to visit the Tattoo Archive and Texas to talk to Lizardman Erik Sprague. Both of these segments almost seem like afterthoughts given how thorough other segments of the show have been. We do learn about Thomas Edison’s contribution to tattooing and get a little bit of insight into Sprague and the world of sideshows, but these segments definitely weren’t as extensive as the rest of the show.

The last extensive piece covers military tattoo history as Reynolds visits southern California. He talks to both artists and military personnel getting work done to learn the significance of tattoos within the military.

Then, it’s off to Hollywood and what amounts to a quick review of the future of tattooing. Reynolds visits Skin Candy to learn about UV ink and talks to Luna Cobra about eyeball tattooing.

For anyone interested in tattoos, this show definitely qualifies as recommended viewing. Many tattoo shows are happy to skim the surface of all of this content and then either take us on a visit to a tattoo expo or have people show off their own tattoo work. This show is different and, given its 2-hour time frame, can be more detailed than those other shows. Ancient Ink provides a history lesson and in-depth exploration of tattoos that any fan of the art would enjoy viewing.

Media Review

Taboo: Bizarre Bodies

National Geographic’s Taboo series has often delved into the world of body modification with mostly positive outcomes. The show continues to have urges to shock its viewers, but it fights off those urges for the most part to provide a unique look at the subject matter being covered.

Taboo: Bizarre Bodies takes its viewers through three different segments, alternating back and forth between the first two, while isolating the third segment. This approach breaks the show up, but almost seems to be a bad piece of organization given how the third segment is left separate.

First, the show takes us to Albuquerque, New Mexico for a visit with Steve Truitt and a couple of his clients. We’re introduced to this group of people through a suspension/photo shoot. This is where Taboo’s urges to shock surface, as the suspension is shown and we’re told, among other things, that there’s “no sterilized equipment”. I find this hard to believe; maybe they meant the location since it wasn’t a sterile operating room or piercing studio? If not, this is concerning since this is usually not the case.

Beyond the suspension, the real reason for the segment is focused on horns. A young lady is preparing to get transdermal horns while a man who has subdermal horn implants is preparing to have them removed, with both procedures performed by Truitt. The Satanic suggestions the horns have raised for some people is a part of the reason for the man’s removal and he even urges the lady to reconsider her horns. We learn more about both individuals before the procedures are shown later on in the show.

The next stop is New Zealand, where the show explores Luna Cobra’s work on eyeball tattooing. As was the case in the Albuquerque segment, we are introduced to a client who is about to undergo the procedure. Reasons and risks of the procedure and how exactly it works are all explored. The show has contained the usual analysis from sociologists and doctors, but at this point we get the seemingly required “this person has psychological problems” suggestion, highlighting another old standard for shows covering body modification: those getting the work done must be crazy.

The three procedures – transdermal implants, subdermal implant removal and eyeball tattoo are all shown after we’ve gone through the first portion of both of those segments. The footage of all three procedures is of a very high quality and really become the shining moments of this show.

After both of those segments are complete, we are introduced to Cathie Jung from North Carolina. She happens to have the world’s smallest waist thanks to corsets. This segment seems as if it could have been produced for a completely separate show as it steps back to look at the history of corsetry and the possible medical consequences. Jung is profiled and the making of her custom corsets is also reviewed.

Taboo has been consistent in giving its audience solid coverage of many forms of body modification and this is really no exception. It explores some new ground through the eyeball tattooing segment, as well as containing enough quality footage and presenting its subjects with enough restraint on its urges to shock that it can be considered recommended viewing.

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