New Yorkers, who reside in a world shaped by advertising, are suckers for self-transformation. In the choice between changing our bodies and changing your mind, changing the body is a lot easier. As well as the easiest feature to change is skin, a blank canvas just waiting being 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 at the New-York Historical Society.
Tattooing is really a global phenomenon, plus an old one. It’s seen on pre-Dynastic Egyptian mummies and on living bodies in Africa, Asia as well as the Americas throughout the centuries. Europeans caught through to it, in a big way, during age Exploration. (The saying “tattoo” has origins in Polynesia; Capt. James Cook is normally credited with introducing it on the West.)
What’s the longtime allure of your cosmetic modification that, even with the invention of contemporary tools, can hurt like hell to purchase? In certain cultures, tattoos are considered 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 can serve as professional calling cards – sample displays – for tattooists promoting their skills.
In the exhibition, they’re greatly about the art of self-presentation, an aesthetic that may enhance certain physical features, and disguise others. At its most extreme, in samples 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 on the New-York Historical Society, starts with evidence, which is scant and secondhand, of tattooing among Native Americans in 18th-century New York State. The clearest images are in a collection of 1710 mezzotints, “The Four Indian Kings,” by the British printmaker John Simon. The set depicts a delegation of tribal leaders, three Mohawk, one Mohican, shipped through the British military to London to request more troops to address the French in America.
If the web of interests they represented was a tangled one, nobody cared. Queen Anne fussed across the exotic visitors. Londoners gave them the equivalent of ticker-tape parades.
From that time the history moves forward, initially somewhat confusingly, to the 19th century, when tattooing was largely connected with life at sea. Inside a label we’re told that Rowland Hussey Macy Sr. (1822-1877), the founder of Macy’s department shop, was tattooed using a red star as he worked, as being a youth, aboard a Nantucket whaler. And – this says something about the jumpy organization of the show’s first section – we study from 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 have been softened by machines.
At that time tattooing had turn into a complex art, plus a thriving business. Ink and watercolor designs, generally known as flash, grew more and 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.
As well, tattoos could possibly have purely practical uses. When Social Security numbers were first issued from the 1930s, those 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 also in the nineteenth century, through the Civil War, a whole new Yorker named Martin Hildebrandt tattooed a large number of soldiers with just their names, to ensure, if they die in battle, several would, their own bodies may be identified.
Hildebrandt was the very first within a long brand of santa ana tattoo shop, 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 along with the Electric Rembrandt) and Jack Dracula (born Jack Baker), whose ambition ended up being 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 arrived at a sad end; he died inside a The Big Apple insane asylum in 1890. But in earlier days his shop did well, and he enjoyed a notable asset in the inclusion of a young woman who used the name Nora Hildebrandt. The personal nature with their relationship is actually a mystery, but their professional alliance is obvious: He tattooed her many times, and he had not been the only real artist who did. Through 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 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, no less than three of whom – Trixie Richardson, Ethel Martin Vangi along with the lavishly self-ornamented ex-burlesque star Mildred Hull – worked “both sides of your needle,” as one of the exhibition’s witty label puts it, by becoming tattooists themselves.
The show’s more coherent second half offers a fascinating account of those women, who form a type of tattoo royalty. One, Betty Broadbent, actually came in close proximity to earning a crown. While appearing in New York’s 1939 World’s Fair, she also took part in the beauty pageant, the very 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 in trouble. Most New York storefront establishments were in the Bowery, that have long since became a skid row, by using a reputation for crime. In 1961, with what was rumored being an attempt to completely clean up the city before the 1964 World’s Fair, the medical Department claimed that tattooing was in charge of a hepatitis outbreak and caused it to be 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, one of them Thom DeVita, Ed Hardy and Tony Polito. Another from the group, Tony D’Annessa, drew his ink-and-marker designs over a vinyl window shade – it’s inside the show – that could be quickly rolled up in case of a police raid.
As being the 1960s proceeded, tattooing gained fresh cachet precisely simply because of its anti-establishment status, which continued in the punk wave of the 1980s, which reclaimed the Bowery as rebel territory. From the globalist 1990s, as soon as the tattoo ban ended, the non-Western sources of a lot of this art, particularly Japanese, was attracting attention. So was the vivid work, a great deal of it reflecting Latin American culture, coming from prisons.
The first kind underground gained high visibility. Artists like Spider Webb (Joseph O’Sullivan) and Thomas Woodruff, who came up from the tattoo world, made a transition to commercial galleries. New work by a few young artists within the show – Mario Desa, Flo Nutall, Chris Paez, Johan Svahn, William Yoneyama and Xiaodong Zhou – seems pitched just as much for the wall concerning skin. And also the gradual entry of tattoos into museums began the process 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 particular. And, as was true a century ago, the participation of ladies is a crucial spur to the art. Ruth Marten began tattooing in early 1970s for a largely punk and gay clientele – she inked the musician Judy Nylon and the drag star Ethyl Eichelberger – and merged live tattooing with performance art, a perception the exhibition will explore with tattooing demonstrations from the gallery.
The nonprofit organization P.Ink (Personal Ink) periodically organizes workshops focusing on tattoo sessions for cancers of the breast survivors who definitely 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. In order to see transformation that changes mind and body equally, here it is.