The Needle has Moved: A Retrospective Exhibition Celebrating the Fifty-Year Career of Tattoo Artist Rick Harnowski is the most recent installment at the Bush Art Center Galleries of exhibitions that have generated physically palpable and widespread excitement across the campus community as well as the greater Green Bay community.
Spreading across all three gallery spaces at the BAC, The Needle Has Moved is a visual, auditory, and tactile experience that refuses to be contained by any single medium. The show is about tattoo artist Rick Harnowski and while the walls are plastered with photographs of his tattoo work, it is so much more than that. The show a wunderkammer of memorabilia from Harnowski’s life. With examples of his painting, drawing, graphic design, photos from his childhood, news clippings, an actual motorcycle, and reflections on his immigration from Poland at a young age, this show is a study of Rick Harnowski himself.
In hopes of diving behind the scenes of The Needle Has Moved, I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with the curators of the show themselves—Brian Pirman and James Neilson—and discuss the workings of the show, and find out just what makes this show tick.
Katie Hopkins: Curating a retrospective exhibition for Green Bay tattoo artist Rick Harnowski is no small feat when considering his accomplishments, but for those who don’t know, what has made Harnowski so monumental in the tattoo scene that raises him above and beyond other artists?
Fr. James Neilson: Well the staying power, having a career of fifty years has its merits of course, but Rick was so instrumental in recognizing the need for reform in the industry. He appealed to government agencies and the state itself to have higher standards of excellence for the safety of the clients as well as for the practitioners of this artform.
Brian Pirman: Another part of the equation [in curating this exhibition] is his son Josh, who Rick shares the studio with. Basically Rick has a chair, and just down the way Josh has a chair. Josh went here to St. Norbert, studied art, graduated in 2007, and he’s become part of the equation over at Tattoos by Rick. Knowing Josh, is how we got to know his dad. We actually took a couple of Art Thursday* field trips out there and that started the beginning of this relationship. But to Jim’s point, you know, working with local government to make sure that it’s safe, he won’t tattoo anyone that’s underage, and there are certain tattoos that he refuses to do. He has these ethics that apply to hygiene as well as symbols and concepts.
*Art Thursday is educational programming put on for the Art majors and minors here at SNC.
KH: Looking at Harnowski’s work, the artistry, care, and technique behind each piece, it’s not hard to see why you’ve decided to dedicate an entire show to his career, but tattoos—no matter the quality—are often met with social prejudice based on appearance and assumed personality traits.
What do you hope the response to this show will be based on the marriage between the subject matter and the formal gallery setting?
JN: I hope there’s a greater consideration for the history of this artform by having it here. I’m actually offering a tutorial to twenty honors students in conjunction with this, so we actually have an embedded educational experience. After twenty five years in the art department, I’ve noticed a shift among the students who have ink. A greater number of students today have ink than they did fifteen years ago, so we want to of course recognize and acknowledge this. We want to think deeply together about what’s going on here. I think the personal narrative of tattooing is always fascinating and the ink wants to speak. These images want to speak and so this is about a dialogue, this is about a huge conversation across campus, within the local community and this is a world phenomenon as well. It’s hardly isolated right here, but we have one of our own who has dedicated his life and has passed his skills onto the next generation and that’s worthy of celebrating.
BP: Speaking more to this sea change within the last ten to fifteen years, there’s been a shift when it comes to people acknowledging, appreciating, and getting tattoos. It used to be the biker who would get the Harley logo, or the sailor who would get the anchor, and its really evolved into something much more. Tattooing has gone from pieces of spot art or line art, like an anchor or a ladybug, something that’s high contrast, to highly illustrative pieces and Rick and Josh both have embraced that. And in some regards I think that they’re the best there is in terms of the quality of the work they do. I think the main thing is that there’s that sea change. Now as far as what’s caused it, personally I think it’s professional athletes. Dennis Rodman, twenty years ago, had tattoos all over his body and many people thought he was strange or a freak, but more and more athletes started getting tattoos and I think it eventually meshed itself into the culture of who we are.
KH: Since I have two art professors here to speak to my next query, I want to ask about tattoos from an art history perspective. Tattooing has been around for centuries, and anything that’s survived that long, albeit undergoing transformations, has to have inherent value. What is it about marking our bodies that speaks to us on such a basic level that it has allowed this art form to endure for so long?
BP: I’ll let Jim answer that one—how long have tattoos been going on?
JN: Oh, some say prehistoric times. We can find the evidence with mummified figures. This is ancient. This is a way we understand who we are. It’s as much about memory as it is communicating correctly and mysteriously with others. It’s all part of the whole notion of how we reveal ourselves. Tattoos can be rewards, our own specialized memories, or so many other things. We reveal ourselves through mystery, memory and symbols.
KH: Besides simply coming and enjoying the exhibition as a viewer, are there other opportunities for community members to get involved with The Needle Has Moved?
JN: We’re going to be having live tattooing in here so people can observe how this looks and sounds, and see the process of the artist himself at work. We’ll be teaching the students how to use the tattoo guns, under the supervision of Josh Harnowski, a tattoo artist himself. They will be working on prosthetic skin, learning the basics as Josh learned from his father, which I think he learned on grapefruits maybe.
*Interested parties can keep an eye out for information on these special events through the BAC Galleries Blog, the Gallery website, the SNC Art Facebook and Instagram pages, and SNC News.
KH: Any parting thoughts or tidbits about the show you would like to pass along to the readers?
JN: There is no typical type of tattoo, there’s a huge variety and we hope that the show reveals this. Tattooing has evolved—what was popular in the 50’s or even the 90’s is no longer popular now. It’s a response to the sign of the times and I’m very very curious with new technologies and new ways of thinking to see how this will be understood, received, and inked into the future.
BP: I think the biggest part of this is just to acknowledge Rick Harnowski and his involvement in the community in terms of making tattoos a respected art that follows good hygiene. Rick puts on an international tattoo show every year, but he’s kind of a quiet guy and not much of a self promoter, so I think it takes others like Jim and I to basically get him out front and center to the local population. And from what I understand there’s going to be people visiting this show and reception from not only the United States, but from France and Germany as well. So the reception, I think, is going to be a big to-do and it’s all about paying respect to Rick.
To see this exhibition for yourself come stop by during the gallery’s regular hours, MTWF, 9am-3pm, and Th 9am-7pm. Keep an eye out on all SNC Art media avenues for information on extra events in conjunction with this show and make sure to attend the gallery reception on Thursday, October 11 from 5-7pm.