The photographs are so beautiful, the sitters so intensely present, that a visitor's first response is to lock eyes with the individual staring out. While each sports a tattooed body, that fact is surprisingly secondary to the overall persona, which wears the markings as easily as another subject may wear pearls or a fedora.
Capturing that holistic quality is characteristic of a master portraitist, and it animates "Tattoo Witness -- Photographs by Mark Perrott," an exhibition at Westmoreland Museum of American Art that comprises 25 large prints selected from thousands of photographs taken by the noted Pittsburgh photographer between 1979 and 2004. Another 50 are projected in an adjacent gallery.
An owl flaps its wings across the chest of "John," a young Ann Arbor, Mich., man with a neatly trimmed goatee. "Richard" of Meadowlands, N.J., has an arm toughened by a skull pierced with dagger and snakes, and the Marx Brothers on his back. "Lolita" of Monroeville strips to a snake skin bikini to show the extensive patterning running down her arms and legs.
Mr. Perrott began his journey into the tattoo world in 1979. Nick Bubash's Island Avenue Tattoo in McKees Rocks was just a place he passed on his commute until, one day, he parked his car and walked in.
"In that mostly dark room a shaded 40-watt bulb cast a warm halo of light," he writes in his artist statement. "That glow illuminated half of Nick Singer's inked and bloody forearm, and an array of thimble-sized paper cups filled with inks of all the colors of the rainbow."
The first of the large black-and-white digital prints the visitor encounters is "Margie," who Barbara Jones, exhibition and Westmoreland curator, pointed out is "sort of the antithesis of tattoo, a clean-cut California girl. And look at who her tattoo is: Little Red Riding Hood, but it's Margie. A portrait of a sitter. There's such a contrast between her and her tattoo."
The patterns are as varied as the people they appear on, from the graphic abstracted vines on Pittsburgher "Olivia's" abdomen, to the photographic realism of Estella, his mother, on Californian "Clark's" arm. The people are middle-age and young, tough and innocent, black, white, Hispanic, Native American. Mr. Perrott forces the viewer past the security of easy embrace or dismissal -- kindred or grotesque -- raising profound questions of how we perceive the other as well as one another.
Mr. Perrott gained acclaim for his photographs of the demolition of the Eliza Furnace at the end of Pittsburgh's steel age, and of the deteriorating Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1999. Two of his "Tattoo Witness" photographs were added to the Carnegie Museum of Art collection in 1983 and to that of Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2003. The common denominator of his four decades of work is that he peers into the souls of his subjects -- inanimate or sentient -- and discovers their essence.
He has done other portrait series, but this was a new world.
"I was a complete outsider," he said. "I didn't belong. No one invited me, wanted me there." It was unfamiliar territory, and he was concerned about being exploitative. "This ground is so rich and intriguing and mysterious. Can I witness without interference?"
When he began photographing, people who had tattoos were stereotyped as "circus freaks, sailors and folks that wander the margins of society," Mr. Perrott said. And even though he at first shared that societal attitude, the individuals he met along the way challenged categorization. "They were so generous and sharing and gracious that they wouldn't permit that stereotype to remain."
Mr. Perrott's explorations expanded to parlors in the Rust Belt states of Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. He began attending conventions as they became popular, including the annual Meeting of the Marked in Pittsburgh. And he completed his pursuit with a cross-country trip in 1997, visiting mid-career tattoo masters as far away as Seattle.
Subjects were not posed, and Mr. Perrott considers the way they presented themselves to the camera as pure generosity.
"They arranged themselves to me. That gave me an incredible amount of joy. It was completely left to the subject and given to me as gifts I couldn't have evoked because I never would have known how to ask for it."
Nor did he ever feel he was privileging the tattoo over the individual.
"I never took on the notion that I had any obligation to value the ink or the mark above the way it behaved in an integrated way upon the subject."
While he often photographed full figure, Ms. Jones noted, some images are cropped for emphasis or formal effect. Mr. Perrott, who shot with film and has in the past printed some of the images as silver prints, credits master printer Tom Underiner, who made the digital prints in the exhibition. To respect their privacy, the subjects' full names are not revealed. But "these images would never be anonymous. They have to live with a name. That's especially important to me," Mr. Perrott said.
The photographer is content with his series closure, at least for the foreseeable future. "I don't stand in the same place at all in my witness of what that subculture is. And needless to say the subculture doesn't stand in the same place," he said noting the proliferation of tattoos among mainstream Americans.
"When I stood in the [gallery on opening] night I thought, 'It's complete and it's OK.' I felt at peace in that room even though the mystery is not answered, and I felt great appreciation for a tribe to which I'll never belong."
Still, the conversation continues. Pre-show, the museum put out a call on Facebook for community members to submit pictures of their tattoos, and many responded. Those images were printed and laminated, along with their stories, and may be browsed through at "The Ink Spot," a coffee table and sofa conversation area. Here stereotypes break down further. Would you predict Abraham Lincoln's signature over a hip, a quote from "The Great Gatsby" on someone's shoulder, four sisters each with a demure Celtic symbol for sisterhood?
Visitors with tattoos may record them and tell their stories at a kiosk in the exhibition. All entrees will be archived as a part of the region's cultural oral history.
The importance of that sharing is one of the lessons Mr. Perrott carried away: "The richness of stories that live within all of this and how we find ways to tell our stories to this world or to the universe or beyond."
"Somehow those marks give me hope, I guess. The hope of the connection of humanity. How do we connect one to one? We're all looking for our lost tribe. Maybe those marks mean: Ask me about my life, ask me about my presence, ask me. I may say no. But I don't think they mean stay away. Come closer, come closer. Let me whisper in your ear about all of my pain and all of my joy and ...."
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.