Digging Deep Into New York City’s Rich Tattoo History


The latest exhibit on view at the New York Historical Society, “Tattooed New York” chronicles over three hundred years of tattoo history ranging from Native American tattooing practices from three centuries ago, to the professional tattooed ladies who graced the stages of freak shows at the turn of the century, all the way through the ban on tattooing in 1961 to now. From punk rockers to hipsters and everything in between, this show has something for everyone.

The scope of the exhibition is significant and takes up an entire gallery space of the Historical Society’s first floor. The marble columns sit in stark contrast to many of the images of inked men and women who helped further a practice that was often looked down upon.

“Tattooed New York” has a comprehensive amount of artifacts, memorabilia, photographs and objects that help to illustrate the way that New York made its mark on American tattoo history. This exhibit is demystifying larger misrepresentations surrounding the practice. From the origins of Native American tattooing practices of the Iroquois to the other nations in the Northeast centuries ago, through the introduction of European tattooing, New York’s tattoo history is nothing but complex.

Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New York Historical Society said,”We are proud to present ‘Tattooed New York’ and offer our visitors an immersive look into the little-known history of modern tattooing.”

The exhibit considers each historical period of New York’s tattoo development in thoughtful detail interweaving interesting facts. For example, “Indigenous people of North America pricked or scratched the skin with sharpened bones, branches, or needles, then rubbed soot or crushed minerals into the wound as pigment.” The process resulted in beautiful ornate tattoo designs that were adorned on the bodies of those who got tattooed.

The tattoo of the past also had significant iconography. They were often the literal mark of an accomplishment and the same symbols that were permanently inked on their bodies could also be found on “carved on their wooden clubs, which recorded victories and exploits in battles.”

Another fascinating element the exhibit explores is the link to maritime culture and tattooing.

It was Captain James Cook who sailed to the South Pacific in the 1700s who first introduced the Tahitian word tautau to England. However it is the three centuries long association with tattoos and sailors that remained intact.

Prior to identification cards and photography, tattooing served as a reliable form of documentation. Tattoos as a form of ID was a frequent trick used by sailors and soldiers throughout the 1700s and beyond. During the Civil War for example, NYC tattooer Martin Hildebrandt tattooed thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers in an effort to help identify them! Hildebrandt is also the first person to set up a permanent place of business dedicated to tattooing in the 1850s in the Lower East Side. But this is not what you would think of in terms of a tattoo shop today. Martin is also known to have tattooed Nora Hildebrandt, the first professional tattooed lady, however the nature of their relationship has historically remained unclear.

New York City’s ties to tattoo history are strong. As New York Historical Society curator Cristian Petru Panaite put it, “New York City is considered the birthplace of modern tattooing. There are a number of inventions or firsts in this craft and art form that took place in New York.”

Petru Panaite continued, “The visual tattoo vocabulary was also enriched with new designs being imagined and drawn by tattooers like Lew Alberts and Bill Jones.These designs were further refined, exchanged, traded – even stolen – ending up in tattoo shops all around the country. The New York tattoo artists were also business-savvy, and New York can definitely take credit for the growth of the tattoo supply business which very much opened the industry.”

Mildred Hull was the first woman to open a tattoo shop in the Bowery. Hull who was a powerhouse in her own right, enjoyed long and prolific career. Women such as Hull, Nora Hildebrandt and others played a vital role in the larger narrative of American tattoo history, however their stories have been often overlooked. While American tattoo history has often been viewed as a hyper-masculine space it is people like Hull, Hildebrandt and others who have helped add depth to this history.

By telling the story of NYC’s tattoo history, the New York Historical Society is helping to bridge the gap between contemporary tattoo culture and it’s past. . The subculture of tattooing in NYC specifically has seen many trends over the years. In 1961, a tattooing ban was put in place by the Health Department of NYC that last over forty years. Since the ban was lifted on tattooing in 1997, this city has come to be synonymous with tattooing.

From the illegal parlors that operating along the Bowery during the 1970s such as Mike Bakaty’s famous shop Fineline, (which is still operating in the East Village today by his son Mehai, and is known as the oldest tattoo shop in the city), to the new celebrity studded shops dotting the East and West Villages, not much as changed.

When it comes to tattoo institutional memory, the exhibit also enlisted the help of several famed NYC tattooers. Tattooed New York also featured various objects that were loaned to the show on behalf of the tattooers. Brad Fink who is co-owner of the famed shop Daredevil lent some of their own artifacts to the exhibit. Daredevil which is a fully operating tattoo shop also features a a small museum of tattoo history within their space.

Co-owner of Daredevil, Michelle Myles who has also incredibly knowledgeable about American tattoo culture as well, said “Cristian Panaite [the curator contacted us and came in to see the collection at Daredevil. Brad [Fink, co-owner of Daredevil] ended up loaning them several items including the Edison pen, a Charlie Wagner tattoo machine, a sailors hand poke kit, the Ace Harlan painting of Millie Hull and Charlie Wagner, the sideshow banner and several sheets of flash.”

Myles added, “I think it’s incredible to see the history of New York City tattooing represented in New York’s oldest museum. It’s important for people to know the role the city played in fostering this art form. New York City is the birthplace of Modern American tattooing.”

Stephanie Tamez who is also a well known tattooer and co-owner of the Brooklyn tattoo shop Saved also was contacted by the exhibit’s curator to help lend her hand to the show in a slightly different way. Tamez has several of her finished tattoos on display as photographs in the exhibit and also within a video that accompanies the show.

Tamez said, “There’s a back-piece of mine that is an Egyptian/ Tibetan phoenix on my client Rebecca (photographed by Gigi Stoll), there’s a piece of flash painting of a Phoenix that I did for Mike Rubendall’s & Neversleep Publishing’s new book “Tattooing’s Guide to Symbolism.”

“I’m also featured in the Ina Saltz video that shows some of my earlier work on typography. Recently I had been introduced to Bo Gehrig, who found me last year and asked me to participate in his video portrait project. So, after that I suggested him as an interesting participant to the show, which I’m happy to say that Cristian followed through with,” Tamez added.

While this show at NYHS is significant and is helping to solidify the vitalness of American tattoo history and those who have carved out this space out. Another exhibit that is also taking on this subject matter in a larger context is the Tattoo exhibit at the Fields Museum in Chicago. Tattoo looks at the larger sociocultural topic of tattoos from a more global perspective. A version of this show was first on display in 2015 as well in France then eventually made its way to North America. Tattooed New York like the show in Chicago is helping to educate the public on a topic that is not often looked at in this way. This show should not be missed and it is finally giving American tattoo culture the context it deserves.

Tattooed New York is on view until April 30, 2017 at the New York Historical Society.