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Tattoos and the Black Male Identity: Nicole Harrison

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Columbia Chicago chapter.

From Chicago to New York and back to Chicago, Columbia alum Nicole Harrison is curating an exhibit that features the Black male identity and the art of tattooing. The exhibit, being featured in Columbia’s ’11 African Heritage Celebration, is titled Fear Into Fire: Reclaiming the Black Male Identity Through the Art of Tattooing and will be on display from Jan. 24 until March 2. 

Nicole earned her B.A. in Arts Managements in 2007 from Columbia College Chicago and a Masters of Arts degree in Africana Studies in 2010 from New York University. 

Reception with Curator and Artists: Thursday, February 3, 5-8pm
Panel Discussion: Say it Loud: Black Men Speak Without Words, a conversation
with the curator, artists and individuals featured in the exhibition. Moderated by
Natalie Y. Moore. February 16, 6-7:30pm, Stage 2, 618 S Michigan Ave.

Tell me about the project. I know it focuses on tattoo and black male identity…
NH: This project explores black male identity through the art of tattooing, but this exhibition also acknowledges tattooing as a newer cultural expression where men of the hip hop generation are expressing themselves and telling stories through through the use of their bodies.   This show provides an investigation into the politics of the body and focuses on issues of representation, identity formation and personal narrative. 
Focusing on black men born in the 1970’s and the 1980’s, the photographs presented in this exhibition draw a correlation between the meanings and connections of the body and the art tattooed onto it.  While each image places emphasis on the tattoo in order to explore the identity, culture and experience of black men living in the United States, the intent of each image is to challenge contemporary notions about African American men in the mainstream media.  This exhibition seeks to disrupt ideas about black men and their body art.

And the images that you will see in this exhibition show that there are stories and artistic expressions happening when we allow ourselves to view this culture in more positive ways.  Which is why each series of images selected explore or put more emphasis on what being tattooed is or means for the individual.   For instance if we begin to read the tattoo literally whether there is an image or phrase, the viewer has no choice but to take it for its meaning.  


How did you come to create the exhibit and display it at Columbia?

NH: The opportunity to curate this show came while writing my MA thesis for my graduate program at NYU.  This exhibition basically is a visual representation of my thesis research.  As an alumni of Columbia College I received much support from many departments regarding my research at the time and the possibly to curate a show around black men and tattoos were something already being discussed.
However, I didn’t know when or where this would all take place.   But one day Columbia was seeking a new and fresh idea to exhibit.  Several faculty members at the College pitched my thesis research to the Department of Exhibition and Performances Spaces, I then submitted a proposal to be approved and the opportunity was then given to me right after.
In one way it seems that the opportunity to curate this show was completely accidental but during my thesis research which is also titled “Fear Into Fire: Reclaiming Black Male Identity Through the Art of Tattooing” I wrote and prepared my research for it to be prepared in many ways and to establish an ongoing conversation around this topic.
How did you become interested in the topic of tattooing and black male identity?

NH: I found myself interested in this topic mainly because of personal connections. From my experience being tattooed I understand how complex and meaningful the symbolism behind the tattoo is for some people and I simply wanted to bring that to the publics attention.  Generally much of my work focus on the complexities, power and beauty of black cultural expressions which is what I’m doing with this work.  While others chose to focus on why we shouldn’t express ourselves in certain ways, I like to present the positive perspective of why we should.  So in this case I intentionally chose to find the power in tattooing by focusing on the stories that is embedded in the symbols and markings on peoples bodies.
What did you learn from the exhibit?

NH: Being that this project has been a working progress over the past two years and watching the many stages it has gone through I think I haven’t quite learned all that this project offers.  My intent with the show and my research, I think is well developed at this point but with each conversation I have regarding this work, I learn new things.  And I become interested in other aspects of the work. 
And being that I have grown up in the culture that I’m writing about and creating exhibition to represent this culture at this time there’s nothing that I have discovered that has shocked me or that I didn’t already know.  Moreover, this exhibition is taking my knowledge of this culture and highlighting it for those who may not know much about it or choose to ignore it.
The one thing that I can say surprised me is the use of tattoos has much more meaning for men then I had ever imagined.  The stories that I’ve heard are extremely emotional and touching.
What’s your goal for the project?

NH: My goal for this project is to bring attention to what I believe is a newer cultural expression that has become a huge part of the hip hop generation and hip hop culture.  I want others to see the power that I see when men choose to extensively mark their bodies to express and tell complicated stories that brings voice and acknowledgement to their life experience.  This project is not to convince others to begin tattooing their bodies but understand that it is much deeper than the general public may feel that tattooing is.

Shardae is a senior journalism major and honor student at Columbia College Chicago, class of 2011. Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Shardae considers Lake Michigan and its surrounding land to be her "backyard." In addition to being a Campus Corresponent for HerCampus.com, she's an Assistant Campus Editor for The Chronicle, Columbia's newspaper.  She also writes for Gloss Magazine Online and is also an intern for Special K at 103.5 Kiss FM. Shardae is an avid reader of celebrity gossip blogs, and believes news is just organized gossip. She is also the mother of a one-year-old daughter and would like to show other young women that all the above can be achieved. Shardae is extremely excited about graduation next spring, and plans to wear her cap and gown for an entire 24-hours after the ceremony. Her favorite thing to do is eat and her passion is writing, she hopes to one day work for Food Network magazine.