If tattooing is experiencing a renaissance now, the port of New York is its cradle. A new show at the South Street Seaport Museum highlights New York City’s maritime history by focusing on a self-proclaimed “Globetrotting Tattooist” who took it far beyond the five boroughs – and who opened the craft to women. In contrast to the survey approach of the New York Historical Society’s “Tattooed New York” show, the South Street Seaport Museum’s exhibit, “The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo,” focuses on a single individual.
August “Gus” Wagner (no relation to Chris Wagner, featured in the NYHS Show) visited more than 100 ports worldwide during a roughly five-year stint as a merchant seaman lasting from 1897 to 1901. He claimed to have learned traditional tattooing in Java and Borneo (by the end of his career he was said to be the last tattooist to work entirely by hand, without an electric needle). He honed his skills in Japan, London and Australia and spent the next 40 years traveling the country as a tattoo artist, sideshow performer and tattooed man. (He had more than 800 tattoos on his body by 1908, and billed himself as “the most artistically marked-up man in America.”)
The exhibit contains original and reproduced artifacts belonging to Wagner — which represent just a fraction of the Alan Govenar and Kaleta Doolin Tattoo Collection, donated to the South Street Seaport Museum in 2001 and 2005. Large wall displays and photos illustrate Wagner’s life and career, background on tattooing, and his work on (and with) his wife and tattooing pupil Maude Stevens Wagner. “She was the first professional female tattooist,” the museum’s collections manager, Martina Caruso, said. “They were a tattooing power couple.”
One feature of the show is a video showing some of the 400 pages of Wagner’s scrapbook, which contains postcards, press clippings and photos. Among the most intriguing are the colorful examples of his tattoo art, called “flashes”, ranging from traditional nautical subjects like cannons, flags and anchors to flamboyant dragons, snakes, birds in flight, butterflies, and elaborate depictions of women sitting astride lions or surrounded by palm trees.
The scenes are all the more striking considering the “canvas” is human skin, delicately pricked over and over again with a needle loaded with ink. “There is very little pain incident to tattooing if the work is done by an artist who understands his business” a wall poster attributes to Wagner in an interview with the Kansas City Times in 1905.
Curator Alan Govenar calls Wagner’s work “outsider art” and compares it to “performance art, where the artist is both the subject and the object of the work.” Govenar, who co-wrote three books on tattooing with Ed Hardy, also produced the documentary, “Stoney Knows How,” based on Govenar’s book about an old-school tattoo artist. He attributes tattooing’s growing appeal since it was legalized in 1997 (it was outlawed in 1961) to “a way to distinguish ourselves. In an increasingly impersonal world, tattoos are deeply personal. Today, tattoo artists may also be painters, or printmakers, or sculptors with BFA and even MFA degrees.”
A case at the exhibit displays Wagner’s tools — his array of delicate handmade needles, his tool box, and a collection of razors he used to prepare his human “canvas.” (Ever the collector, Wagner scratched the dates on his razors.) Between the wall posters, video, photos and displays, “The Original Gus Wagner” is a capsule history of a craft experiencing a rebirth at the same time as the South Street Seaport Museum itself, whose infrastructure was inundated by Hurricane Sandy and reopened only last year.
“We’ve made some progress in the last four years,” the museum’s executive director, Jonathan Boulware, said. “We know 2017 will be a good year going forward but it may be a surprise to many people that some places still haven’t recovered from Sandy.”
Govenar and Caruso hope the exhibit will draw attention to the Seaport, help the conservation of Wagner’s scrapbook and interest more people into the importance of researching, studying, documenting and preserving tattoo art and culture for future generations.