New-York Historical Society explores more than 300 years of tattoo culture in New York
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New-York Historical Society explores more than 300 years of tattoo culture in New York
Thomas Edison (1847–1931), Electric pen, 1876. Nickel-plated flywheel, cast iron, steel stylus, and electric motor. Collection of Brad Fink, Daredevil Tattoo NYC.

NEW YORK, NY.- A new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society will examine three centuries of tattooing in New York, including the city’s central role in the development of modern tattooing and the successive waves of trend and taboo surrounding the practice. Tattooed New York, on view February 3 – April 30, 2017, will feature more than 250 works dating from the early 1700s to today—exploring Native American body art, tattoo craft practiced by visiting sailors, sideshow culture, the 1961 ban that drove tattooing underground for three decades, and the post-ban artistic renaissance.

“We are proud to present Tattooed New York and offer our visitors an immersive look into the little-known history of modern tattooing,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “At the convergence of history and pop culture, the exhibition will track the evolution of this fascinating form of self-expression and the city’s influence on the phenomenon.”

Tattooed New York will explore early communities of body art aficionados—such as Native Americans, sailors and soldiers, society women, and “tattooed ladies”—as well as examine how identity is expressed through tattoos today. It will follow the evolution of tattoo technology, from pricking and poking techniques to machines; track the rise of New York City’s Bowery neighborhood as a hotbed of tattoo culture in the 1920s–30s; share the creative and secretive ways that tattooing continued during the ban; and feature artwork by some of the finest New York tattoo artists working today. Tattooed New York is curated by Cristian Petru Panaite, Assistant Curator of Exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society.

Among the earliest items in the exhibition are the New-York Historical Society’s Four Indian Kings mezzotints from 1710, featuring portraits of Mohawk and Mohican tribal kings who traveled to London seeking military aid against the French and their Ojibwe allies. The King of the Maquas (or Mohawk tribe) is depicted with black linear patterns covering his chest and lower face. Also on view is a 1706 pictograph by a Seneca trader that represents his distinctive serpent and bird tattoos as his personal signature, one of the earliest recorded in Western accounts. Tattooed New York also features a Native American tattooing kit used for medicinal purposes and a mid-18th century Ojibwe ball club with carvings suggestive of tattoo patterns that likely adorned the warrior’s body.

As soldiers and sailors traveled the world in the early 19th century, tattoos served as mementos of faraway lands, good luck charms, and protection against induction into the British Royal Navy. Passing through New York, seamen also earned extra money by showing off their tattoos in pop-up sideshows. An early Protection Certificate and a manual tattooing kit belonging to a sailor are featured in the exhibit, along with examples of patriotic and religious art that inspired tattoo designs.

The exhibition charts the evolution of advances in the art of tattooing, many of them pioneered in New York. Martin Hildebrandt, often credited as the first professional tattoo artist in New York City, set up a permanent tattoo business in Lower Manhattan as early as 1859. The trade was revolutionized by Samuel O’Reilly’s invention of the electric tattoo machine on the Bowery in 1891. O’Reilly’s machine was based on Thomas Edison’s Electric Autographic Pen, an example of which is on view. The invention instantly made tattooing cheaper, faster, and more widely available. New York tattooers also changed the way designs were drawn, marketed, and sold. Flash―the sample tattoo drawings that still adorn many studios today―was developed and popularized by Lew Alberts, whose drawings are displayed along with work by Bob Wicks, Ed Smith, and the legendary Moskowitz Brothers.

The exhibition focuses special attention on women and tattoos, from the sideshow era through today. Photographs capture famous sideshow tattooed stars, including Nora Hildebrandt, “the first professional tattooed lady;” La Belle Irene, “the original tattooed lady;” and Lady Viola, “the most beautiful tattooed lady in the world.” A painting by tattoo artist Ace Harlyn depicting famed Bowery tattooer Charlie Wagner tattooing Mildred Hull—the “first and only tattooist woman on the Bowery” —shows some of the 300+ tattoos she created on herself. The exhibition also addresses tattooing as an art form that enabled women to challenge gender roles and turn tattoos into signs of empowerment.

In 1961, New York City’s Health Department declared it was “unlawful for any person to tattoo a human being,” citing Hepatitis B as a concern. The ban sent tattoo artists underground and many continued working quietly from their homes, often taking clients at odd hours of the night. The exhibition features photographs from the apartment studios of Thom deVita and Mike Bakaty and tattoo designs from the era, including some made to be quickly concealed in case of random police raids. The work of fine artists who began to explore tattooing during the ban years will also be on display, including Ruth Marten, Mike Bakaty, and Spider Webb.

The tattoo ban was lifted in February 1997. Today, more than 270 tattoo studios are flourishing across the five boroughs. Footage of tattooing, filmed for the exhibition in several New York studios, demystifies the process. An audio tour invites visitors to listen to the voices of legendary tattoo artists who worked in New York City during the late 20th century. The international reach of New York’s influence on the art world today is demonstrated in works by tattoo artists from Denmark, Japan, Mexico, China, Brazil, the UK, and Italy.

The exhibition closes by depicting some of the ways in which New Yorkers today use tattoos for self-expression and empowerment. Tattoos covering mastectomy scars, for instance, represent a new beginning for breast cancer survivors. Commemorative tattoos worn by survivors of 9/11 are a permanent reminder to “never forget.”

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