New Yorkers, who live in a world shaped by advertising, are suckers for self-transformation. In the choice between changing the body and changing your head, changing the body is a lot easier. Along with the easiest feature to change 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 New York,” a tightly packed survey of epidermal art opening on Friday on the New-York Historical Society.
Tattooing is a global phenomenon, and an old one. It’s found on pre-Dynastic Egyptian mummies as well as on living bodies in Africa, Asia and also the Americas through the centuries. Europeans caught onto it, in a big way, during age Exploration. (The saying “tattoo” has origins in Polynesia; Capt. James Cook is often credited with introducing it on the West.)
What’s the longtime allure of a cosmetic modification that, despite the invention of contemporary tools, can hurt like hell to obtain? In many cultures, tattoos are viewed healing or protective. In others, they’re marks of social affiliation, certificates of adulthood. Like Facebook pages, they are often public statements of personal interests, political or amorous. They are able to work as professional calling cards – sample displays – for tattooists promoting their skills.
From the exhibition, they’re quite definitely about the ability of self-presentation, an aesthetic that may enhance certain physical features, and disguise others. At its most extreme, in examples of unhideable, full-body, multi-image ink jobs, tattooing is 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, begins with evidence, that is scant and secondhand, of tattooing among Native Americans in 18th-century New York City State. The clearest images will be 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 by the British military to London to request more troops to fight the French in North America.
In case the web of interests they represented had been a tangled one, nobody cared. Queen Anne fussed over the exotic visitors. Londoners gave them the same in principle as ticker-tape parades.
From that time the history moves forward, at first somewhat confusingly, into the nineteenth century, when tattooing was largely linked to life at sea. In a label we’re told that Rowland Hussey Macy Sr. (1822-1877), the founder of Macy’s department shop, was tattooed with a red star when he worked, being a youth, aboard a Nantucket whaler. And – this says something in regards to 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 very 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 become a complex art form, along with 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 p-ornography to elevated symbolic fare (Rock of Ages; Helios, the Greek sun god), with levels of fanciness determining price.
At the same time, tattoos could possibly have purely practical uses. When Social Security numbers were first issued in the 1930s, individuals who had difficulty remembering them had their numbers inked onto their skin, like permanent Post-it notes. (A tattooist called Apache Harry made numbers his specialty.) And also in the 19th century, in the Civil War, a fresh Yorker named Martin Hildebrandt tattooed a large number of soldiers with only their names, so that, if they die in battle, as many would, their bodies could possibly be identified.
Hildebrandt was the initial in the long brand of tattoo shop santa ana, 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 and 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 stumbled on a regrettable end; he died within a The Big Apple insane asylum in 1890. But also in earlier days his shop did well, and he had a notable asset in the inclusion of a young woman who used the name Nora Hildebrandt. The individual nature of the relationship can be a mystery, but their professional alliance is apparent: He tattooed her many times, and the man had not been the only real artist who did. With the 1890s, she was adorned using more than 300 designs and had become an attraction in the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Like many self-inventing New Yorkers, she provided herself having a colorful past: She said she’d been forcibly inked by Indians when captured being a girl. Variations on this story served other tattooed women of 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 of the needle,” among the exhibition’s witty label puts it, by becoming tattooists themselves.
The show’s more coherent second half provides a fascinating account of those women, who form a kind 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 in the beauty pageant, the first ever broadcast on television. Although she didn’t end 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 is in trouble. Most New York storefront establishments were in the Bowery, which in fact had long since became a skid row, having a good reputation for crime. In 1961, in what was rumored to become an effort to clean within the city before the 1964 World’s Fair, the Health 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 brand new 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 over a vinyl window shade – it’s inside the show – which could 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 to the punk wave from the 1980s, which reclaimed the Bowery as rebel territory. By the globalist 1990s, as soon as the tattoo ban ended, the non-Western types 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 out of prisons.
The former underground gained high visibility. Artists like Spider Webb (Joseph O’Sullivan) and Thomas Woodruff, who came up with the tattoo world, created a transition to commercial galleries. New work by several young artists inside the show – Mario Desa, Flo Nutall, Chris Paez, Johan Svahn, William Yoneyama and Xiaodong Zhou – seems pitched the maximum amount of towards the wall concerning skin. Along with the gradual entry of tattoos into museums began the whole process of mainstreaming which includes made the genre widely popular, but in addition watered down.
Not completely watered down, though. Native American artists are again making the form their own. And, as was true a century ago, the participation of ladies is an important spur to this particular art. Ruth Marten began tattooing in early 1970s for any largely punk and gay clientele – she inked the musician Judy Nylon along with the drag star Ethyl Eichelberger – and merged live tattooing with performance art, an idea the exhibition will explore with tattooing demonstrations in the gallery.
The nonprofit organization P.Ink (Personal Ink) periodically organizes workshops that specialize in tattoo sessions for cancers 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 will be in the show, as well as testimonials from grateful clients. In order to see transformation that changes mind and body equally, here you go.