New Yorkers, who live in a world shaped by advertising, are suckers for self-transformation. Within a choice between changing the body and changing your head, changing our bodies is simpler. Along with the easiest feature to alter is skin, a blank canvas just waiting to be colored, stained or drawn on. That’s everything we see happening repeatedly, imaginatively and pretty much permanently in “Tattooed The Big Apple,” a tightly packed survey of epidermal art opening on Friday at the New-York Historical Society.
Tattooing is actually a global phenomenon, along with an old one. It’s seen on pre-Dynastic Egyptian mummies and so on living bodies in Africa, Asia and also the Americas throughout the centuries. Europeans caught onto it, greatly, during the Age of Exploration. (The term “tattoo” has origins in Polynesia; Capt. James Cook is usually credited with introducing it for the West.)
What’s the longtime allure of your cosmetic modification that, even with the invention of modern tools, can hurt like hell to purchase? In a few cultures, tattoos are believed healing or protective. In others, they’re marks of social affiliation, certificates of adulthood. Like Facebook pages, they may be public statements of personal interests, political or amorous. They can serve as professional calling cards – sample displays – for tattooists promoting their skills.
In the exhibition, they’re significantly about the skill of self-presentation, an aesthetic that could enhance certain physical features, and disguise others. At its most extreme, in examples of unhideable, full-body, multi-image ink jobs, tattooing is actually a grand existential gesture, one who says, loud and clear: I’m here.
The show, organized by Cristian Petru Panaite, an assistant curator at the New-York Historical Society, starts off with evidence, which happens to be scant and secondhand, of tattooing among Native Americans in 18th-century The Big Apple State. The clearest images have been in some 1710 mezzotints, “The Four Indian Kings,” with the British printmaker John Simon. The set depicts a delegation of tribal leaders, three Mohawk, one Mohican, shipped from the British military to London to request more troops to battle the French in North America.
In the event the web of interests they represented was actually a tangled one, nobody cared. Queen Anne fussed within the exotic visitors. Londoners gave them the equivalent of ticker-tape parades.
From that point the tale moves forward, in the beginning somewhat confusingly, in to the 19th century, when tattooing was largely related to life at sea. Within a label we’re told that Rowland Hussey Macy Sr. (1822-1877), the founder of Macy’s department store, was tattooed using a red star as he worked, as being a youth, aboard a Nantucket whaler. And – this says something regarding the jumpy organization of the show’s first section – we gain knowledge from exactly the same label that Dorothy Parker, the renowned Gotham wit, acquired a really similar tattoo in the 1930s, presumably under nonmarine circumstances, and under more humane conditions, as old-style poke-and-scratch methods have been softened by machines.
By then tattooing had develop into a complex art, plus a thriving business. Ink and watercolor designs, known as flash, grew ever more wide-ranging, running from standard stars-and-stripes motifs to soft-core por-nography to elevated symbolic fare (Rock of Ages; Helios, the Greek sun god), with degrees of fanciness determining price.
At the same time, tattoos may have purely practical uses. When Social Security numbers were first issued inside the 1930s, those who had difficulty remembering them had their numbers inked onto their skin, like permanent Post-it notes. (A tattooist generally known as Apache Harry made numbers his specialty.) And in the 19th century, throughout the Civil War, a whole new Yorker named Martin Hildebrandt tattooed thousands of soldiers with only their names, so that, if they die in battle, several would, their health may be identified.
Hildebrandt was the initial within a long collection of santa ana tattoo shop, which includes Samuel O’Reilly, Ed Smith, Charlie Wagner (the “Michelangelo of Tattooing”), Jack Redcloud, Bill Jones, Frederico Gregio (self-styled as both Brooklyn Blackie along with the Electric Rembrandt) and Jack Dracula (born Jack Baker), whose ambition would be to be “the world’s youngest most tattooed man.” Whether he achieved his goal I don’t know, but Diane Arbus photographed him, and that’s fame enough.
Hildebrandt came to an unfortunate end; he died in a New York insane asylum in 1890. But in earlier days his shop did well, and he had a notable asset in the existence of a young woman who used the name Nora Hildebrandt. The personal nature of the relationship can be a mystery, however professional alliance is clear: He tattooed her several times, and he was not the only real artist who did. Through the 1890s, she was adorned with over 300 designs and had become an attraction from the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Like many self-inventing New Yorkers, she provided herself by using a colorful past: She said she’d been forcibly inked by Indians when captured like a girl. Variations for this story served other tattooed women from the era well, at the very least three of whom – Trixie Richardson, Ethel Martin Vangi as well as the lavishly self-ornamented ex-burlesque star Mildred Hull – worked “both sides of the needle,” as among the exhibition’s witty label puts it, by becoming tattooists themselves.
The show’s more coherent second half gives a fascinating account of these women, who form a form of tattoo royalty. One, Betty Broadbent, actually came near earning a crown. While appearing in New York’s 1939 World’s Fair, she also took part inside a beauty pageant, the 1st ever broadcast on tv. Although she didn’t wind up as queen, her tattoos, which included a Madonna and Child on her back and portraits of Charles Lindbergh and Pancho Villa on either leg, were noticed.
But despite such brushes with mainstream fame, tattooing was in trouble. Most Ny storefront establishments were around the Bowery, which had long since became a skid row, having a reputation for crime. In 1961, as to what was rumored to get an attempt to clean within the city prior to the 1964 World’s Fair, the Health Department claimed that tattooing was liable for a hepatitis outbreak and caused it to be illegal.
That drove the trade underground, where it continued to flourish, often by night, in basements and apartments. A fresh generation of artists emerged, one of them Thom DeVita, Ed Hardy and Tony Polito. Another of your group, Tony D’Annessa, drew his ink-and-marker designs on a vinyl window shade – it’s within the show – which may be quickly rolled up in case of a police raid.
Since the 1960s proceeded, tattooing gained fresh cachet precisely due to its anti-establishment status, and that continued in the punk wave from the 1980s, which reclaimed the Bowery as rebel territory. With the globalist 1990s, when the tattoo ban ended, the non-Western causes of much of this art, particularly Japanese, was attracting attention. So was the vivid work, a great deal of it reflecting Latin American culture, coming from prisons.
The former underground gained high visibility. Artists like Spider Webb (Joseph O’Sullivan) and Thomas Woodruff, who came up through the tattoo world, made a transition to commercial galleries. New work by a few young artists inside the show – Mario Desa, Flo Nutall, Chris Paez, Johan Svahn, William Yoneyama and Xiaodong Zhou – seems pitched the maximum amount of on the wall concerning skin. Along with the gradual entry of tattoos into museums began the procedure of mainstreaming which has made the genre widely popular, but also watered down.
Not completely watered down, though. Native American artists are again making the shape their own personal. And, as was true a century ago, the participation of girls is an important spur to the art. Ruth Marten began tattooing in the early 1970s for the largely punk and gay clientele – she inked both musician Judy Nylon as well as the drag star Ethyl Eichelberger – and merged live tattooing with performance art, a perception the exhibition will explore with tattooing demonstrations inside the gallery.
The nonprofit organization P.Ink (Personal Ink) periodically organizes workshops that specialize in tattoo sessions for breast cancer survivors who have had mastectomies but reject reconstructive surgery. Photographs of scar-ornamenting and covering designs by Miranda Lorberer, Ashley Love, Joy Rumore and Pat Sinatra are in the show, as well as testimonials from grateful clients. If you would like see transformation that changes body and mind equally, here it is.