Captain James Cook, a Brit, brought the name back from the South Pacific. They have marked the skins of tribesmen, princes, socialites, sailors and sideshow attractions at the circus. The city banned them in 1961, after a hepatitis B outbreak, but the craft migrated underground to apartments and back rooms, and above ground to art galleries and museums. The ban was repealed in 1997, and now skin art has gone mainstream.
“New York is the birthplace of modern tattooing. The tattoo machine was developed here,” Cristian Petru Panaite, the curator, said at a preview of “Tattooed New York,” a presentation of some 250 items illustrating more than 300 years of tattoo history. The turn-of-the-century machine, based on Thomas Edison’s electric pen, “revolutionized the craft. It made it cheaper and opened it to the community.”
Indeed, New Yorkers from all walks of life wanted to get tattooed. A photomontage at the exhibit’s entrance includes images of Teddy Roosevelt, Dorothy Parker and a “man in Times Square.” Parker sports a star tattoo on her wrist; T.R. is rumored to have worn the family crest on his chest. R.H. Macy, the founder of the department store, boasted a red star on his hand or arm, which inspired the company’s iconic logo (and looked like Parker’s tattoo).
Think of the gallery, with paintings, photos, prints, banners, flash (tattoo design) sheets and other tools of the trade, as a giant tattoo parlor, which it will literally become on select Fridays and weekends when the Society presents live demonstrations featuring tattoo artists from the five boroughs.
This is wearable art, with the body as canvas. Panaite has traced its roots back to the region’s Native Americans, who poked and scratched and used pigments to create markings that they believed had the power to heal and protect — and used to declare identity and battle victories. One Seneca Indian signed a fur-trading account book (1695-1726), on display, with a pictograph representing his trademark tattoos.
Other early items include four mezzotints from 1710 that picture inked Mohawk and Mohican tribal leaders who went to London to request aid from Queen Anne to fight the French and their Ojibwe allies. The prints are among the first works of art to capture Native American tattooing.
Soldiers and sailors in North America first used tattoos for identification purposes. In the 1800s, tattooing, like scrimshaw, became a popular pastime on the high seas, and its uses evolved to mark memories of voyages and bring luck to a sailor. Design sheets line the walls, with symbolic images of pigs and roosters (protection from drowning if inked on feet), eagles (honor), anchors (stability) and swallows (miles traveled). “One swallow stood for 5,000 miles,” Panaite said, adding that sailors who were looking to “make a buck” would show off their ink at sideshows in New York.
But women were in on the game, too — high-society ladies and “tattooed ladies” at Coney Island and on the Bowery — and their contributions are a focus of the show. Tattoos were quite fashionable until World War II and garnered plenty of press coverage. In 1901, the New York World, the “TMZ of its day,” ran the screaming headline: “Mrs. Amy Gillig Starts Newest Fad, Tattooed Marriage Initials In Place of Engagement Ring.” And rumors swirled that Vanderbilt heirs were getting tattooed.
Less fortunate women, however, saw economic opportunity in getting inked. Beginning in the late 1860s, “Opportunities were limited. Women could sustain themselves by becoming sideshow tattoo attractions ... and feel empowered by their tattoos. These were very business savvy women,” the curator said.
Enter sideshow stars Nora Hildebrandt, La Belle Irene and Betty Broadbent, the last an attraction at the 1939 New York World’s Fair for her head-to-toe ornamentation. Mildred Hull, the “Queen of the Bowery,” was the first woman to open a shop on skid row and a tattooer herself. Her 1939 portrait with Charlie Wagner (“the Michelangelo of tattoo artists”) in the act of decorating her forearm is a wild canvas for some of the more than 300 images she created, including an alleged butterfly “in a spot not visible to the public,” a label states.
In the 1970s, female tattoo artists began to proliferate, and the tattoo had become a way for women to reclaim their bodies and proclaim independence and personal style. Exhibit photos of breast cancer survivors with elaborate designs, concealing scars, signal transformation and pack an emotional wallop.
During the ban, practitioners had to be on the alert for police raids. Tony D’Annessa, who had a shop on West 48th Street, kept his flash on window shades that could be rolled up if the cops came. See one here, along with a diorama of Tony Polito’s basement studio in Crown Heights.
The curator’s hope for the show is that viewers recognize that tattooing, however controversial, “is an art form like any other. It’s just another form of personal expression.”