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A Review of William DeMichele’s Marks of Identity Exhibit at the Photo Center of the Capital Region

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William DeMichele’s Marks of Identity Exhibit, Review, Photo Center of the Capital Region, Troy

William DeMichele's Marks of Identity at the Photo Center of the Capital RegionThrough August 21, 2011, selected works of world-renowned local photographer, William DeMichele, are on display at the Photo Center of the Capital Region in Troy. Many of the photographs in the Marks of Identity exhibit have previously only been displayed in the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Though DeMichele has photographed all over the world, taking pictures of people from all walks of life–including some of the world’s best known inked entertainers–this exhibit focuses solely on average people. Average people and their tattoos that is.

The photographs on display at the Photo Center illustrate the individual and their tattoos as a living breathing art form and a form of personal expression. The pictures here also go far beyond simple pictures of tattoos. These are photographs of emotions and life experiences, and they’re as diverse as the skin they’re inked on, with tattoos that range from tribal markings to flowers to numbered dates to words and phrases.

They lure and challenge their audience. With no distracting backgrounds or artistic lighting tricks, you, as an observer, are forced to consider the reasoning and purpose behind each inch of dyed skin.

DeMichele allows his subjects to express themselves through their body language, expression and clothing choice (or lack thereof). Many present straightforward smiling portraits; others project sadness, insecurity or submission. One young woman shows off her tattoos, but just as her tattoos wrap securely around her arms, she in turn wraps her arms around her torso, protecting herself from an unknown hurt.

The variety of the photographs keeps it intriguing, while the tattoos tie it all together. Some are just of individual people, others have two subjects. Some are head shots. Some are full body shots. And with no background information about the individual subjects, the audience is left to create their own back stories.

The Enigma and Katzen by William DeMicheleThe Enigma and Katzen shows a man and a woman, their faces looking directly at the camera–he looks at you with a slight dreamy smile on his face; her face is more thoughtful, serious, perhaps even sad. The man’s face and body are covered in blue puzzle pieces; the tattoos on the woman’s face and body mimic the stripes of zebra hide. Mary Ann shows a picture of a 70-year-old woman, whose first tattoo was inked while in her 60s. Her body is now completely covered in ink, from her neck to her toes. Observing the picture, you find a determined woman, one you can’t help but admire, even though her reasoning may escape you.

Using tattoos as a form of expression is not always so obvious or extreme.

In Wilma, we see a woman in her 60s or 70s. She has a kind smile on her face, the kind your second grade teacher had. But look lower and you will notice three beautiful tattooed flowers–a carnation, a rose and a mum. All above two nipple rings.

Though the pictures of older generations might be surprising (one would expect to see younger people with tattoos, even perhaps with their bodies covered in them), these pictures are also quite fascinating, and integral to the exhibit.

In today’s world, tattoos are socially acceptable. But look back just a few decades, and tattoos were largely considered an act of rebellion, excluding you from certain jobs and potentially marking you as a “freak.” Yet tattooing has been a practiced art form for thousands of years. Markings have been found on human remains as far back as the fifth millennium BC. It is thought, due to the placement of the ink, that tattooing was somehow related to acupuncture.

Tattoos in a more modern era were and are used not just for artistic purposes but also as rites of passage, marks of class status and for protection. Many tribal and religious groups and gangs use them as a form of identification. They have also been forcibly applied as punishment or for negative identification, as with Roman gladiators and Holocaust prisoners. In recent decades, tattoos have been used for cosmetic and medical reasons as well.

If after touring the exhibit you find yourself wanting more, DeMichele’s first book The Illustrated Woman is also on sale at the Photo Center.

For more information on the Marks of Identity exhibit, visit

Tara Swahlan is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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