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Tattooed New York at the New York Historical Society

Art Scene, DVS Project, Newest Project

Tattooed New York at the New York Historical Society

In the New York Historical Society exhibition, Tattooed New York, the deep roots of body art and tattoo culture in New York have been traced back three centuries. The Native American Haudenosaunee nation (Iroquois), from what is now known as the state of New York, were among the first documented communities with a well established practice of the art form. The exhibition opens with Colonial era anthropological texts, handwritten notes, and drawings dating back to the 1700s. European settlers created the documents in an attempt to describe and visualize the healing powers, spiritual meaning, life event, and identity marking characteristics of the practice.

Meanwhile, across the pond in Europe, the Mohawk nation introduced the art form to England in 1710. Members of the nation, known as “The Four Kings” and welcomed at a reception held by Queen Anne, traveled their to seek military aid for their fight in North America against the French. The 1700s also had Captain James Cook introduce the Tahitian word “tautau” to England after his travels in the South Pacific; and, awareness of the art form skyrocketed in America after Herman Melville’s book, “Typee”, was published, describing his visit to Polynesia in 1842.

Follow up to the fascinating history of tattoos as an intercultural artistic phenomenon, quickly moves on in the exhibition to its flourishing among sailors and soldiers. Used as markers of travel to foreign locales and a form of reliable identification, tattoos were also considered to be good luck charms that offered protection against the dangers of life on the sea and the battlefield.

Women and tattoos are covered in the exhibition, along with the transition of tattoos from simply being art to being a sought after commodity. Gus Wagner, a sailor with 800 tattoos, and Maud Stevens, a circus aerialist, are considered to be the first American tattoo artists for hire. The Bowery in New York City is also highlighted as the epicenter of the art forms evolution in the contemporary era. The fluctuation of tattoo culture between underground status and highbrow art form is documented throughout the exhibition through drawings, images and documentary-style video presentations. Despite the New York City Health Department’s ban of tattoo art from 1961-1997, the culture still blossomed.

The pure artistry of the art form in the 21st century is captured in six large-scale Vibrachrome ™ photographs printed by Duggal Visual Solutions. Hardy Rosenstein of Duggal worked closely with Marcela Gonzalez of the New York Historical Society to produce the stunning, frameless images which present bodies as canvases against black backdrops. The backs of human figures photographed from the knees, hips, or waist up, reveal full back tattoos that in some cases extend into full sleeve tattoos, down to mid-thigh, or gracefully crest over the lower back. The photos produced by Duggal reveal an exquisite use of a controlled color palette grounded in black ink. In both cases a central animal figure rises up in the center of the upper back, while other narrative elements are interlaced amidst abstract graphic patterns. A handful of red curvy lines, perhaps symbolizing fire, veins, or energy, are interspersed on the lower and middle back of Michelson, while a blue third eye symbol rests on the uppermost portion of Seller’s torso.

The timeless magic of body art and tattoos, presented in Tattooed New York, is quite astonishing, and appears to be a truly global art form that continues to grow, evolve and never lose its charm.


Tattooed New York is on view until April 30, 2017.

New York Historical Society

170 Central Park West (77th Street)

New York NY 10024


Please also see the New York Times’ Review of the exhibition by Holland Cotter.