New Yorkers, who reside in a world shaped by advertising, are suckers for self-transformation. Inside a choice between changing your body and changing the mind, changing our bodies is simpler. As well as the easiest feature to alter is skin, a blank canvas just waiting to become colored, stained or drawn on. That’s everything we see happening repeatedly, imaginatively and virtually permanently in “Tattooed Ny,” a tightly packed survey of epidermal art opening on Friday on the New-York Historical Society.
Tattooing is really a global phenomenon, plus an old one. It’s found on pre-Dynastic Egyptian mummies and so on living bodies in Africa, Asia along with the Americas through the centuries. Europeans caught onto it, greatly, during the Age of Exploration. (The term “tattoo” has origins in Polynesia; Capt. James Cook is frequently credited with introducing it to the West.)
What’s the longtime allure of your cosmetic modification that, even with the invention of recent tools, can hurt like hell to obtain? In certain cultures, tattoos are thought healing or protective. In others, they’re marks of social affiliation, certificates of adulthood. Like Facebook pages, they could be public statements of personal interests, political or amorous. They are able to work as professional calling cards – sample displays – for tattooists promoting their skills.
Inside the exhibition, they’re greatly about the skill of self-presentation, an aesthetic that can enhance certain physical features, and disguise others. At its most extreme, in samples of unhideable, full-body, multi-image ink jobs, tattooing can be a grand existential gesture, one who says, loud and clear: I’m here.
The show, organized by Cristian Petru Panaite, an assistant curator in 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 are in a collection of 1710 mezzotints, “The Four Indian Kings,” through 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 battle the French in Canada And America.
In the event the web of interests they represented was actually 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 tale moves forward, initially 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 department shop, was tattooed with a red star as he worked, like a youth, aboard a Nantucket whaler. And – this says something concerning the jumpy organization from the show’s first section – we gain knowledge from exactly the same label that Dorothy Parker, the renowned Gotham wit, acquired an extremely similar tattoo in the 1930s, presumably under nonmarine circumstances, and under more humane conditions, as old-style poke-and-scratch methods ended up being softened by machines.
By then tattooing had become a complex art, plus a thriving business. Ink and watercolor designs, generally 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 levels of fanciness determining price.
Concurrently, tattoos may have purely practical uses. When Social Security numbers were first issued within the 1930s, people that 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 19th century, in the Civil War, a fresh Yorker named Martin Hildebrandt tattooed a huge number of soldiers with only their names, to ensure that, should they die in battle, as many would, their health could possibly be identified.
Hildebrandt was the first in a long line of santa ana tattoo shop, which include 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 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 got to an unfortunate end; he died in a The Big Apple insane asylum in 1890. But 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 personal nature of the relationship can be a mystery, however their professional alliance is clear: He tattooed her multiple times, and that he had not been really the only artist who did. From the 1890s, she was adorned with over 300 designs along with 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 like a girl. Variations about this story served other tattooed women in the era well, no less than three of whom – Trixie Richardson, Ethel Martin Vangi as well as the lavishly self-ornamented ex-burlesque star Mildred Hull – worked “both sides of your 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 the women, who form a type 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 in her back and portraits of Charles Lindbergh and Pancho Villa on either leg, were noticed.
But despite such brushes with mainstream fame, tattooing is at trouble. Most New York storefront establishments were on the Bowery, that had long since was a skid row, using a track record of crime. In 1961, in what was rumored to be an effort to clean up the city before the 1964 World’s Fair, the Health Department claimed that tattooing was accountable for a hepatitis outbreak and managed to get illegal.
That drove the trade underground, where it continued to flourish, often by night, in basements and apartments. A whole new generation of artists emerged, among 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 in the show – that could be quickly rolled up in case there is a police raid.
As being the 1960s proceeded, tattooing gained fresh cachet precisely due to the anti-establishment status, and that continued in the punk wave of your 1980s, which reclaimed the Bowery as rebel territory. Through 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, much 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 out with the tattoo world, created 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 as much towards 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, and also watered down.
Not completely watered down, though. Native American artists are again making the form their particular. And, as was true a hundred years ago, the participation of females is a vital spur to this art. Ruth Marten began tattooing in the early 1970s to get a largely punk and gay clientele – she inked the musician Judy Nylon as well as the drag star Ethyl Eichelberger – and merged live tattooing with performance art, a concept the exhibition will explore with tattooing demonstrations inside the gallery.
The nonprofit organization P.Ink (Personal Ink) periodically organizes workshops focusing on 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 happen to be in the show, together with testimonials from grateful clients. If you want to see transformation that changes body and mind equally, here it is.