2017-02-02 11:22:11
Art Review: ‘Tattooed New York’: Mohawk Chiefs, Bowery Denizens, Inking Artists

New Yorkers, who live in a world shaped by advertising, are suckers for self-transformation. In a choice between changing the body and changing the mind, changing the body is easier. And the easiest feature to change is skin, a blank canvas just waiting to be colored, stained or drawn on. That’s what we see happening repeatedly, imaginatively and pretty much permanently in “Tattooed New York,” a tightly packed survey of epidermal art opening on Friday at the New-York Historical Society.

Tattooing is a global phenomenon, and an old one. It’s found on pre-Dynastic Egyptian mummies and on living bodies in Africa, Asia and the Americas throughout the centuries. Europeans caught on to it, in a big way, during the Age of Exploration. (The word “tattoo” has origins in Polynesia; Capt. James Cook is often credited with introducing it to the West.)

What’s the longtime allure of a cosmetic modification that, even after the invention of modern tools, can hurt like hell to acquire? In some cultures, tattoos are considered healing or protective. In others, they’re marks of social affiliation, certificates of adulthood. Like Facebook pages, they can be public statements of personal interests, political or amorous. They can function as professional calling cards — sample displays — for tattooists promoting their skills.

In the exhibition, they’re very much about the art of self-presentation, an aesthetic that can 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, 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, which is scant and secondhand, of tattooing among Native Americans in 18th-century New York State. The clearest images are in a set 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 by the British military to London to request more troops to fight the French in North America.

If the web of interests they represented was a tangled one, nobody cared. Queen Anne fussed over the exotic visitors. Londoners gave them the equivalent of ticker-tape parades.

From that point the story moves forward, at first somewhat confusingly, into the 19th century, when tattooing was largely associated with life at sea. In a label we’re told that Rowland Hussey Macy Sr. (1822-1877), the founder of Macy’s department store, was tattooed with a red star when he worked, as a youth, aboard a Nantucket whaler. And — this says something about the jumpy organization of the show’s first section — we learn from the same label that Dorothy Parker, the renowned Gotham wit, acquired a very similar tattoo in the 1930s, presumably under nonmarine circumstances, and under more humane conditions, as old-style poke-and-scratch methods had been softened by machines.

By then tattooing had become a complex art form, and 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 pornography to elevated symbolic fare (Rock of Ages; Helios, the Greek sun god), with degrees of fanciness determining price.

At the same time, tattoos could have purely practical uses. When Social Security numbers were first issued in the 1930s, people who had difficulty remembering them had their numbers inked onto their skin, like permanent Post-it notes. (A tattooist known as Apache Harry made numbers his specialty.) And in the 19th century, during the Civil War, a New Yorker named Martin Hildebrandt tattooed thousands of soldiers with just their names, so that, should they die in battle, as many would, their bodies could be identified.

Hildebrandt was the first in a long line of revered Gotham tattoo artists, 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 came to a sad end; he died in a New York insane asylum in 1890. But in earlier days his shop did well, and he had a notable asset in the presence of a young woman who used the name Nora Hildebrandt. The personal nature of their relationship is a mystery, but their professional alliance is clear: He tattooed her multiple times, and he was not the only artist who did. By the 1890s, she was adorned with more than 300 designs and had become an attraction in the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Like many self-inventing New Yorkers, she provided herself with a colorful past: She said she’d been forcibly inked by Indians when captured as 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,” as one of the exhibition’s witty label puts it, by becoming tattooists themselves.

The show’s more coherent second half gives a fascinating account of these 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 a 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 was in trouble. Most New York storefront establishments were on the Bowery, which had long since became a skid row, with a reputation for 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 responsible for a hepatitis outbreak and made it illegal.

That drove the trade underground, where it continued to flourish, often by night, in basements and apartments. A new generation of artists emerged, among them Thom DeVita, Ed Hardy and Tony Polito. Another of the group, Tony D’Annessa, drew his ink-and-marker designs on a vinyl window shade — it’s in the show — which could be quickly rolled up in the event of a police raid.

As the 1960s proceeded, tattooing gained fresh cachet precisely because of its anti-establishment status, and that continued into the punk wave of the 1980s, which reclaimed the Bowery as rebel territory. By the globalist 1990s, when the tattoo ban ended, the non-Western sources of much of this art, particularly Japanese, was attracting attention. So was the vivid work, much 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 through the tattoo world, made a transition to commercial galleries. New work by several young artists in the show — Mario Desa, Flo Nutall, Chris Paez, Johan Svahn, William Yoneyama and Xiaodong Zhou — seems pitched as much to the wall as to skin. And 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 form their own. And, as was true a century ago, the participation of women is a crucial spur to this art. Ruth Marten began tattooing in the early 1970s for a largely punk and gay clientele — she inked both the musician Judy Nylon and 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 breast cancer 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 are in the show, along with testimonials from grateful clients. If you want to see transformation that changes body and mind equally, here it is.