Tattooed New York
New York Historical Society | February 3 – April 30, 2017
Did you know United States President Teddy Roosevelt had a tat? This and other peculiar facts abound at the New York Historical Society’s 300-year purview of this ancient and universal art form as practiced in the city and its surrounding regions. Over the centuries, tattooing in New York City appears to have had wide swings in its degree of acceptance, but has never been culturally lost. As well as tracking the lives of tattoo artists, their customers, tools and techniques, and eras of changing designs, the exhibition also holds up a mirror to shifting populations of New Yorkers, class divisions, and perhaps most tellingly, the roles expected of women—whose bodies have typically borne the brunt of America’s deep ambivalence toward sexuality. Unfortunately, the exhibit, evidently biting off more that it can chew, suffers from a number of gaps that give the overall experience a disjointed feel, particularly at the beginning and end of the historical timeline, but the materials portraying and documenting the growth of the industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries is strong.
New York’s original native population is represented here in four mezzotints of the so-called “Indian Kings”—three Mohawks and one Mohican—who traveled to England requesting military aid against the French and their native allies. These prints of Native Americans with patterns tattooed on their faces, chests, and limbs are copies made by the English printmaker John Simon, of four paintings from the hand of Dutchman John Verelst, all dated 1710. The images both idealize and exoticize their subjects, to satisfy Europeans’ appetite for novelty. No doubt the English and Dutch settlers of New York City would have considered such practices unfit for God-fearing Christian men.
From the Indian Kings of the early 18th century, the timeline jumps to sailors’ tattoos in the early 19th century (indigenous tattoo practices not re-emerging until a later discussion of contemporary tattoo artists). English sailors, due to contact with cultures in the Pacific Islands during the 1700s—the word “tattoo” comes from the Tahitian word tatau—were among the first Europeans to adopt tattooing. As American whalers spread into the Pacific in the 1800s, they began to emulate their British counterparts. As a practical matter, tattoos made useful identification marks, which the sailor could use in legal documents. Tattoos also served as signs of sailors’ achievements: a dragon tattoo meant a sailor had traveled to China, or a full-rigged ship (a boat with three or more square-sailed masts) meant he had sailed around Cape Horn. Given the dangers of a sailor’s life, tattoos also served an apotropaic function: a compass rose tattoo meant a sailor would always return home. The flash—ink and watercolor designs of tattoo templates—from this period included women in various degrees of undress, flags, butterflies, daggers, and so forth.
By the Civil War era, soldiers were also using tattoos for identification. One of the earliest known artists, Martin Hildebrandt, who set up New York’s first tattoo parlor in 1859 on the Bowery—what became the ground zero for the city’s tattoo trade—tattooed the names of thousands of Confederate and Union soldiers on arms and chests using a hand-poking technique. By 1891, with the invention of Samuel O’Reilly’s electric rotary tattoo machine, almost every barbershop from lower Manhattan to Coney Island had a tattoo artist working out of the back room.
The late 19th century also saw the rise of professional tattooed women who were staples of circus sideshows, offering women a career and rare financial independence. Simultaneously, fashionable women, following trends from Europe (veritably Winston Churchill’s mother discretely kept her wrist tattoo hidden under a bracelet), began to sport Japanese-style designs of dragons and birds inked by Hori Chiyo, “the Shakespeare of tattooing.” In 1939, covered in 565-plus tattoos, Betty Broadbent challenged traditional norms of beauty by competing in the first televised beauty pageant. However, with the rise of new technologies and affordability, the industry saw a decline in tattooing as a fad for the wealthy, and by the 1950s was more associated with bikers and criminals.
In 1961, under the pretext of protecting people from hepatitis, New York City banned tattooing for three decades, forcing tattoo artists to either go underground or move outside the city limits. In 1979, however, tattooing was cast in a new light of high art with the publication Pushing Ink, The Fine Art of Tattooing by artist Spider Webb (Joseph O’Sullivan), which documented his use of tattoos as conceptual art. Clearly the adoption of tattooing as a counter-cultural practice by the punk wave in the ’80s, which had strong inroads to New York City’s artistic communities, must have been a factor in the evolution, but that connection gets scant development within the exhibition. New York City finally lifted the ban on tattoo parlors in 1997, ushering in an era in which tattooing merged and developed with the rest of the city’s art and design worlds.
Among the contemporary artists featured at the end of the show, Ruth Marten’s Marquesan Heads (1977), an enamel painting on masonite, nicely brings the historical narrative full circle with illustrated facial tattoos of the natives from that island, recalling the mezzotints of the “Indian Kings.” There is also a very moving wall of photographs of women who have chosen to get their mastectomies decorated with tattoos rather than get reconstructive surgery. All in all though, Tattooed New York would have benefited from more thoroughly connecting the dots across its timeline, in particular from the tattoo’s outlaw status to the widely accepted practice we see today.
is an artist and has an MFA from the School of Visual Arts Art Practice program. He is a frequent contributor to Artseen.