Tattooed New York
of an Exhibit
Published on April 08, 2017 , Modified on April 08, 2017
Museum: New York Historical Society
Visit Date: March, 2017
Tattooing itself has simply been what it has always been: person, ink, image. Through the mirror of time, tattoos themselves have changed to represent different things for different people and that is what the New York Historical Society seeks to explore in its Tattooed New York exhibit; the morphing progression of tattooing culture, art, and methods. The purpose, use, and symbolism of tattoos has shaped to reflect the needs and wants of people throughout the narrative of time.
The Tattooed New York exhibit starts with the Native American groups that lived in New York and tattooing was done for a variety of reasons: protection for physical ailments, protection from harm, to celebrate battle victories, etc. Europeans immigrating to this coast were astounded by the culture they encountered and were eager to share with those back in Europe. When four “Indian Kings” came back to the Great Britain to try and help persuade the British government to lend military support to assist with colonial expansion, it left quite few Europeans staring, mouths wide open, to see other people covered in bold images and lines. In turns out, tattoos have been leaving people speechless for hundreds of years.
Then, after this cultural introduction, tattooing became very popular among sailors (and other men in the military service eventually). Sailors would choose designs for a mixture of reasons. Some designs were meant to lend protection, some for showing off patriotism, and others just as a form of identification in battle (even though naked ladies were popular, none were ever exactly the same). It also happened to be a popular way to pass the time on the ship when there wasn’t much to do. Some sailors had their own personal tattooing kit they would bring along on trips.
Men weren’t the only ones lining up to get inked. There were many women, socialites as well as those featured in sideshows. Tattooing is one of the greatest ways a person can exercise agency and control over their body- “I want this there forever.” Choice. And this has appealed to a range of people for hundreds of years, especially women. Tattooing was one avenue women could take to asserting independence and some even turned into a lucrative business.
Tattooing equipment also saw a transformation after the invention of Edison’s electric pen inspired the electric rotary tattoo machine. New York happened to be the right place at the right time for becoming a capital of tattooing and because of all of this New York City is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern tattooing. A large tattooing community developed in Lower Manhattan and in Brooklyn (think Brooklyn Navy Yard and Coney Island). In all this, a style developed: black outlines, bold colors, and black shading. You can see this repeating aesthetic throughout the objects shown including the photos, “flash” sheets, and painting.
Then starting in 1961, tattooing was banned by the New York Department of Health and the tattooing community went underground in NYC. This didn’t halt the constant and ever growing stream of people seeking to get tattooed. Tattoo artists just relocated just outside the city limits or operated in secret from their apartments, setting up shop in their living room. The ban is lifted in 1997 and tattooing in New York City sees another large shift with an influx of cultural influences such as Japanese culture and a growing popularity across all walks of life.
Finally, the exhibit ends with a booth for live demonstrations as well as photos and objects exploring how tattooing is practiced now and its influence on the art world. Even if you miss the live demonstrations, there are still videos of the tattooing process and the sound of a tattoo needle playing in the background to create the ambiance of a tattoo parlor.
This exhibit is a wild juxtaposition to the rest of the museum which is white walls, older historical artifacts such as painted portraits, landscapes, and battles. There are objects from the mundane of the everyday to the extravagant and unique but mostly feel removed from our everyday lives. In Tattooed New York, we see a different face of New York. This is a New York that people can easily relate to and the exhibit reflects this through its objects; there are sculptures, magazines, videos, photographs, paintings, newspapers, and music. There are “flash” sheets everywhere. The space feels just as much like a tattoo parlor as an exhibit.
The thing that I appreciated the most was a looping back at the end to where we had originally started at the beginning of the exhibit. Tattooing in New York started with the Native American groups that lived here but that tradition is not dead. Native groups that live in New York still practice and celebrate their tattoo traditions, and the Iroquois Museum in New York State just recently had their own exhibit on tattooing. Native Americans were a huge influence though and in a sense, they’ve left a huge mark on New York and the tattooing tradition as we know today. Even though the use and design of tattoos has changed, tattoos are still inked with care to provide protection and to celebrate important events in addition to many other reasons.
Tattooing is intimate and this exhibit captured some of that intimacy through the telling the story of tattooing in New York. There’s a fascination and magic imbued in these permanent images and there’s always, always a story behind a tattoo. It’s another lense in which to understand New York’s history; another lense in which to understand one another.