New Yorkers, who reside in a world shaped by advertising, are suckers for self-transformation. Inside a choice between changing our bodies and changing your brain, changing the entire body is a lot easier. And also the easiest feature to improve is skin, a blank canvas just waiting to become colored, stained or drawn on. That’s what we should see happening repeatedly, imaginatively and just about permanently in “Tattooed New York City,” a tightly packed survey of epidermal art opening on Friday on the New-York Historical Society.
Tattooing is a global phenomenon, as well as an old one. It’s located on pre-Dynastic Egyptian mummies and also on living bodies in Africa, Asia along with the Americas during the entire centuries. Europeans caught onto it, greatly, during age Exploration. (The phrase “tattoo” has origins in Polynesia; Capt. James Cook is frequently credited with introducing it for the West.)
What’s the longtime allure of a cosmetic modification that, even with the invention of contemporary tools, can hurt like hell to get? 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 can be public statements of personal interests, political or amorous. They can work as professional calling cards – sample displays – for tattooists promoting their skills.
Inside the exhibition, they’re quite definitely about the ability of self-presentation, an aesthetic that will enhance certain physical features, and disguise others. At its most extreme, in instances of unhideable, full-body, multi-image ink jobs, tattooing is a grand existential gesture, one who says, loud and clear: I’m here.
The show, organized by Cristian Petru Panaite, an assistant curator with the New-York Historical Society, starts with evidence, which can be scant and secondhand, of tattooing among Native Americans in 18th-century The Big Apple State. The clearest images happen to be in a collection of 1710 mezzotints, “The Four Indian Kings,” from the British printmaker John Simon. The set depicts a delegation of tribal leaders, three Mohawk, one Mohican, shipped with the British military to London to request more troops to combat french in America.
If the web of interests they represented was a tangled one, nobody cared. Queen Anne fussed on the exotic visitors. Londoners gave them the same in principle as ticker-tape parades.
From that point the story moves forward, in the beginning somewhat confusingly, in the 1800s, when tattooing was largely associated with life at sea. In the label we’re told that Rowland Hussey Macy Sr. (1822-1877), the founder of Macy’s mall, was tattooed using a red star as he worked, as a youth, aboard a Nantucket whaler. And – this says something about the jumpy organization of your show’s first section – we learn from a similar label that Dorothy Parker, the renowned Gotham wit, acquired an extremely similar tattoo inside 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, plus a thriving business. Ink and watercolor designs, known as flash, grew more and more wide-ranging, running from standard stars-and-stripes motifs to soft-core p-ornography to elevated symbolic fare (Rock of Ages; Helios, the Greek sun god), with levels of fanciness determining price.
As well, tattoos could possibly have purely practical uses. When Social Security numbers were first issued from the 1930s, people 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 nineteenth century, during the Civil War, a New Yorker named Martin Hildebrandt tattooed 1000s of soldiers with just their names, so that, should they die in battle, several would, their health might be identified.
Hildebrandt was the first in the long line of tattoo shop santa ana, including Samuel O’Reilly, Ed Smith, Charlie Wagner (the “Michelangelo of Tattooing”), Jack Redcloud, Bill Jones, Frederico Gregio (self-styled as both Brooklyn Blackie and also 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 stumbled on a sad end; he died in a New York City insane asylum in 1890. However in earlier days his shop did well, and he enjoyed a notable asset in the presence of a young woman who used the name Nora Hildebrandt. The individual nature with their relationship is a mystery, however their professional alliance is apparent: He tattooed her several times, and then he was not really the only artist who did. Through the 1890s, she was adorned using more than 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 a girl. Variations about this story served other tattooed women from the era well, at least three of whom – Trixie Richardson, Ethel Martin Vangi and the lavishly self-ornamented ex-burlesque star Mildred Hull – worked “both sides from the needle,” as among the exhibition’s witty label puts it, by becoming tattooists themselves.
The show’s more coherent second half offers a fascinating account of these women, who form a sort of tattoo royalty. One, Betty Broadbent, actually came close to 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 the back and portraits of Charles Lindbergh and Pancho Villa on either leg, were noticed.
But despite such brushes with mainstream fame, tattooing is in trouble. Most New York storefront establishments were on the Bowery, that have long since became a skid row, by using a track record of crime. In 1961, in what was rumored being an attempt to wash the city ahead of the 1964 World’s Fair, the medical Department claimed that tattooing was accountable 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, and this includes Thom DeVita, Ed Hardy and Tony Polito. Another of your group, Tony D’Annessa, drew his ink-and-marker designs with a vinyl window shade – it’s in the show – that could be quickly rolled up in case there is a police raid.
Because the 1960s proceeded, tattooing gained fresh cachet precisely simply because of its anti-establishment status, and therefore continued in the punk wave of your 1980s, which reclaimed the Bowery as rebel territory. Through the globalist 1990s, once the tattoo ban ended, the non-Western causes of much of this art, particularly Japanese, was attracting attention. So was the vivid work, a lot of it reflecting Latin American culture, emerging from prisons.
The first kind underground gained high visibility. Artists like Spider Webb (Joseph O’Sullivan) and Thomas Woodruff, who came out through the tattoo world, produced a transition to commercial galleries. New work by a few young artists in the show – Mario Desa, Flo Nutall, Chris Paez, Johan Svahn, William Yoneyama and Xiaodong Zhou – seems pitched the maximum amount of for the wall concerning skin. As well as the gradual entry of tattoos into museums began the procedure of mainstreaming that 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 hundred years ago, the participation of ladies is a crucial spur to this particular art. Ruth Marten began tattooing during the early 1970s for any 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, an idea the exhibition will explore with tattooing demonstrations within the gallery.
The nonprofit organization P.Ink (Personal Ink) periodically organizes workshops focusing on tattoo sessions for cancer of the breast survivors who may 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 want to see transformation that changes body and mind equally, here you go.