New Yorkers, who reside in a world shaped by advertising, are suckers for self-transformation. In a choice between changing the entire body and changing your head, changing the body is a lot easier. And the easiest feature to modify is skin, a blank canvas just waiting to be colored, stained or drawn on. That’s what we see happening repeatedly, imaginatively and just about permanently in “Tattooed New York,” a tightly packed survey of epidermal art opening on Friday at the New-York Historical Society.
Tattooing can be a global phenomenon, along with an old one. It’s found on pre-Dynastic Egyptian mummies and so on living bodies in Africa, Asia and the Americas through the entire centuries. Europeans caught through to it, in a big way, during the Age of Exploration. (The word “tattoo” has origins in Polynesia; Capt. James Cook is usually credited with introducing it to the West.)
What’s the longtime allure of any cosmetic modification that, even after the invention of modern tools, can hurt like hell to obtain? In certain cultures, tattoos are considered 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 could serve as professional calling cards – sample displays – for tattooists promoting their skills.
Within the exhibition, they’re significantly about the art of self-presentation, an aesthetic that will 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, the one that says, loud and clear: I’m here.
The show, organized by Cristian Petru Panaite, an assistant curator at the New-York Historical Society, starts with evidence, which can be scant and secondhand, of tattooing among Native Americans in 18th-century New York State. The clearest images will be in a collection of 1710 mezzotints, “The Four Indian Kings,” by 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 fight french in Canada And America.
When the web of interests they represented was really a tangled one, nobody cared. Queen Anne fussed over the exotic visitors. Londoners gave them the same as ticker-tape parades.
From that time the tale moves forward, at the beginning somewhat confusingly, into the nineteenth century, when tattooing was largely linked to life at sea. Within a label we’re told that Rowland Hussey Macy Sr. (1822-1877), the founder of Macy’s shopping area, was tattooed with a red star as he worked, as a youth, aboard a Nantucket whaler. And – this says something regarding the jumpy organization of your show’s first section – we gain knowledge from the same label that Dorothy Parker, the renowned Gotham wit, acquired a very similar tattoo in the 1930s, presumably under nonmarine circumstances, and under more humane conditions, as old-style poke-and-scratch methods was softened by machines.
By then tattooing had turn into a complex art form, along with a thriving business. Ink and watercolor designs, generally known as flash, grew more and 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.
Simultaneously, tattoos could possibly have purely practical uses. When Social Security numbers were first issued in the 1930s, those who had difficulty remembering them had their numbers inked onto their skin, like permanent Post-it notes. (A tattooist referred to as Apache Harry made numbers his specialty.) And also in the 1800s, during the Civil War, a fresh Yorker named Martin Hildebrandt tattooed a large number of soldiers with only their names, in order that, if they die in battle, as numerous would, their health might be identified.
Hildebrandt was the initial inside a long line of santa ana tattoo shop, including Samuel O’Reilly, Ed Smith, Charlie Wagner (the “Michelangelo of Tattooing”), Jack Redcloud, Bill Jones, Frederico Gregio (self-styled as both Brooklyn Blackie as well as the Electric Rembrandt) and Jack Dracula (born Jack Baker), whose ambition was 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 arrived at a sad end; he died within a The Big Apple insane asylum in 1890. However in earlier days his shop did well, and the man enjoyed a notable asset in the inclusion of a young woman who used the name Nora Hildebrandt. The personal nature of their relationship is actually a mystery, but their professional alliance is apparent: He tattooed her multiple times, and the man had not been the only artist who did. With the 1890s, she was adorned with over 300 designs and had become an attraction inside 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 as being a girl. Variations on this story served other tattooed women from the era well, a minimum of three of whom – Trixie Richardson, Ethel Martin Vangi as well as the lavishly self-ornamented ex-burlesque star Mildred Hull – worked “both sides in the needle,” as the exhibition’s witty label puts it, by becoming tattooists themselves.
The show’s more coherent second half offers a fascinating account of the women, who form a kind of tattoo royalty. One, Betty Broadbent, actually came in close proximity to earning a crown. While appearing in New York’s 1939 World’s Fair, she also took part inside a beauty pageant, the first ever broadcast on television. Although she didn’t end up as queen, her tattoos, which included a Madonna and Child in 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 New York storefront establishments were on the Bowery, which in fact had long since became a skid row, by using a history of crime. In 1961, in what was rumored being an endeavor to clean in the city just before the 1964 World’s Fair, the medical Department claimed that tattooing was responsible for a hepatitis outbreak and managed to make it 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 the group, Tony D’Annessa, drew his ink-and-marker designs on the vinyl window shade – it’s in the show – that may be quickly rolled up in the event of a police raid.
As being the 1960s proceeded, tattooing gained fresh cachet precisely because of its anti-establishment status, and that continued into the punk wave of the 1980s, which reclaimed the Bowery as rebel territory. By the globalist 1990s, once the tattoo ban ended, the non-Western sources of a lot of this art, particularly Japanese, was attracting attention. So was the vivid work, a lot of it reflecting Latin American culture, coming out of prisons.
The former underground gained high visibility. Artists like Spider Webb (Joseph O’Sullivan) and Thomas Woodruff, who came out through the tattoo world, made a transition to commercial galleries. New work by a few young artists from the show – Mario Desa, Flo Nutall, Chris Paez, Johan Svahn, William Yoneyama and Xiaodong Zhou – seems pitched as much to the wall as to skin. And the gradual entry of tattoos into museums began the whole process of mainstreaming which has made the genre widely popular, but in addition watered down.
Not completely watered down, though. Native American artists are again making the shape their own. And, as was true a hundred years ago, the participation of girls is a crucial spur for this art. Ruth Marten began tattooing in the early 1970s for the largely punk and gay clientele – she inked the two musician Judy Nylon and the drag star Ethyl Eichelberger – and merged live tattooing with performance art, an idea the exhibition will explore with tattooing demonstrations from the gallery.
The nonprofit organization P.Ink (Personal Ink) periodically organizes workshops specializing in tattoo sessions for cancer of the breast 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 have been in the show, as well as testimonials from grateful clients. If you want to see transformation that changes mind and body equally, here you go.