Tattooed New York is an exhibition currently on display from February 3rd - April 30th. It is being held at the New York Historical Society, and as such, it will explore three centuries of tattooing history in New York. The exhibit will explore the central role that New York played in modern tattooing, which started with Native American body art and sailors in colonial New York. The long history of tattooing in the Empire State touches on sideshow culture, the tattoo ban that forced tattoo artists underground for thirty-six years, the post-ban artistic revival, and the current state of affairs regarding tattooing in New York. The exhibit will display over 250 artifacts, including portraits of Native American kings from the 1700s, pictures of tattoo shops and artists from the 1920s, rare photos documenting the tattoo ban years, and even Thomas Edison’s electric pen.
Perhaps one of the more interesting facets of the exhibit are the people who were a part of the tattooing history in New York — the Native Americans, the sailors and soldiers, the socialite women, and the “tattooed ladies” who became sideshow attractions at the circus. We have the beloved American outlaw artists who, despite the tattoo ban, continued to practice their illegal craft in home parlors at odd hours in an attempt to avoid detection. There are all sorts of interesting human stories at the exhibit. We learn about Martin Hildebrandt, the gentlemen credited as being the first professional tattoo artist in New York, and who opened a permanent tattoo business in Manhattan around the year 1859. He tattooed thousands of soldiers with their names, so that if they died in battle, they could be identified. Then you have Samuel O’Reilly, the man who invented the tattoo machine in 1891 based off of Thomas Edison’s Electric Autograph pen. The invention revolutionized the tattoo industry by making it cheaper, faster, and more widely available. As you can see, the denizens of New York played a major role in tattoo history.
Sadly, history often turns a blind eye to the contributions of women, but the exhibition focuses special attention on women dating back to the sideshow era up through today. The exhibit displays photographs of the first professional tattooed ladies, a portrait of Mildred Hull, the first and only tattooist on the Bowery, and it displays some of the 300+ tattoos she received, many of which were designs she created. The exhibition also delves into the idea that tattooing as an art form enabled women to challenge gender roles. Tattooing was seen as masculine, but the women of New York were not going to be shut out from this ritual. The exhibit also covers how women use tattoos as symbols of empowerment.
One of the exhibits I found more interesting was that of the tattoo ban, which was enacted in 1961 because officials wanted to clean up the city before the 1964 World Fair. Tattoos were blamed for an outbreak of hepatitis, and it wasn’t until 1997 that the ban was lifted. The ban forced tattoo artists to work stealthily from their homes, and required artists to receive clients at night to avoid being caught by the authorities. The exhibit features images of apartment studios from this time period, and tattoo designs from the era.
The history of tattooing in New York paints a picture of diversity and camaraderie. It takes you through the lives of Mohawks and Mohicans, sailors and sideshows, inventors and artists, and it ends with the lively story of today. Currently, New York is home to more than 270 tattoo studios, and the influence of New York tattoos on art can be seen worldwide. The exhibit closes by detailing the ways in which modern New Yorkers use tattoos for self-expression and empowerment, for covering scars, and for commemorating 9/11. It is worth checking out if tattoos and history interests you.