Evoking the symbolism of seafaring legacy

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Over thousands of years, the tattoo has been etched into the global imagination, absorbed into every culture, marking the art form’s innate permanence as the ultimate emblem of pride, identity and rite of passage.
In his latest series, Everlasting, photographer Tom Brannigan captures the symbolic spirit of the practice, focusing on the roots of body art in maritime history.
The work takes inspiration from traditional sailor tattoo designs, employing a playful and at times tongue-in-cheek approach.
Brannigan carefully constructs still-life photographs from objects he has collected, to evoke the imagery adopted by seafarers as mementos and talismans that primarily served a superstitious purpose among those living an unpredictable, and often risky, lifestyle.
Images of swallows, skulls, daggers, hearts and roses are constructed predominantly with mass produced, toy-like props to reference the often stylised and cartoon-like nature of this genre of tattoos.
“I’ve been fascinated by tattoos ever since I was a kid,” says Brannigan. “I’m interested in the language and symbolism of tattoos, and how a design becomes almost a cultural icon when it is repeated over time.”
“Everlasting started out of a love of the culture and visual language of traditional sailor tattoos. I was curious to see whether the visual language specific to tattoo culture translates to photography and at the same time still retains some of the same feeling,” he explains.
“I kept thinking about the idea of permanence – tattoos are works of art that often disappear when the wearer dies – the only way to maintain the relevance of a design is for it to be replicated in another tattoo,” he says. “In a similar way, a photograph has a lifespan as a print and then it fades and disappears, unless it’s reprinted again and again.”
‘Everlasting’ is on show at The Waiting Room in Colchester until 26 November. For more on the series, go here.

Charlotte Harding

Charlotte Harding is a writer, creative consultant and editor of More This, a sustainable sourcebook for doing good, based in London. She has been writing for British Journal of Photography since 2014, and graduated in 2016 with an MA in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths, UoL. Her work is published on various arts and culture platforms, including AnOther, TOAST and Noon Magazine.