Rel-ink – Indelible narratives

Tattoo art today is very visible and has become part of mainstream contemporary pop culture. This is a far cry from how the Western World has for centuries viewed this art form. Until fairly recently, tattoo art was perceived as taboo, with deeply held prejudices against the practice mostly associated with unruly sailors, waterfront workers, prison inmates and the criminal underworld.

As part of the REL•INK project, an exhibition will be hosted by Heritage Malta at the Malta Maritime Museum in Vittoriosa on 6th October 2017. The personal oral history accounts of participants will feature in the exhibition together with images of their tattoo designs. The ultimate objective of the REL•INK project is to document twentieth century tattoo designs in the Maltese population with the aim of building a digital archive that will feature as an open source resource.

The project REL•INK, looks at the tattoo art of elderly Maltese male informants aged 75 years of age and over, who worked on ships or on the waterfront such as stevedores, fishermen, longshoremen, dockers, sail makers, sailors, stewards, coalmen, firemen, Royal Navy service men, Merchant Navy men, firemen, stokers, labourers or in related occupations.

REL•INK will explore tattoos and their significance in the day to day life of these port workers, labourers or seafarers at a time when the maritime sector was the mainstay of Malta’s colonial economy. The project’s aim is to research and document the tattoo practices of the Maltese, the motivating factors for the acquisition of tattoos and to bring to the notice of the public early 20th century Maltese tattoo artists and their handiwork.

Historical research gathered from the National Archive of Malta shows that tattoos were included in passport documents and referenced as visible distinguishing marks. The Mediterranean port city of Marseille in France was a popular destination for seamen and waterfront workers seeking a better life or seasonal work in the early part of the 20th century. This project also researches these migratory links and points of engagement with Marseille, looking at references to tattooing and the Maltese from French archival and literary sources.

The project focuses on various aspects related to maritime history including employment, economic and maritime traditions and the movement of seamen and port workers from the 1900s up to World War II.

REL•INK is a community outreach project in collaboration with the Malta Maritime Museum, the Library Information and Archive Sciences Department of the University of Malta and Arts Council Malta . It is inviting the public to participate in the project by coming forward with stories, memories and images related to Maltese tattoo art and traditions from this period. REL•INK is also a Citizen Science based project that seeks the assistance of the public in order to preserve the historical narrative by documenting images and oral accounts of tattooing in Malta. We therefore welcome your inquiries and any information on tattoo designs from the early 20th century.

Contact us if you are over 75 years of age, have tattoos and would like to share your stories, or if you have elderly relatives or friends over 75 years of age with tattoos, who would like to share theirs or if you have other visual documentation such as photographs, drawings, etc that show tattoo designs from Malta made before 1950s. If you have tattoo related objects from this period you are also invited to get in touch with us. You can reach us on 9946 7189 or send an email on


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