Today, tattooing has become an ever-present feature of mainstream across America, but New York was believed to have a unique and dynamic relationship with tattoo artistry as analyzed at the New-York Historical Society by an upcoming exhibit. New York, as well as giving birth to modern tattooing, also played a key part in shaping its abstruse evolution and the industry’s sub-cultural background.
Indeed, way before New York gave birth to modern tattooing, native body art dates as far back as the 1700s, which were the first recorded images of the art. During this era, Native Americans around that vicinity would tattoo their bodies to remember and immortalize victories and sometimes even used to treat ailments like Arthritis.
Back in the 1930s, Manhattan society women would journey downtown to draw small tattoos that could easily be concealed from public prying eyes. About a century down the line, seamen would display their inked bodies in pop-up sideshows- where tattooed ladies were also an attraction- for little extra cash when they passed through New York’s port during their sea trips. Even though the practice was seen as trashy and was frowned at for women, some of the very popular tattooed ladies used their newfound fame to their advantage by gaining financial freedom. By 1859, tattoos were already making steady advancement in New York’s downtown and with that development came the city’s first tattoo parlour.
In 1891, Samuel O’Reilly, a tattoo artist inspired by Thomas Edison’s 1876 patent electric pen that was used for creating stencils and puncturing paper, patented an electric tattoo machine, the first in the Bowery and this, in turn, gave rise to many other tattoo parlours. This machine played a major role in the spread of tattooing in the city as the machine’s speed made tattooing faster hence cheaper. Over time, other New York tattoo artists started inventing their own tattoo modifications making New York a hub for tattoo technology, and by early 1920 the Bowery known for its reputation as the heart of the city’s abrasive populace was already the turning point of New York’s tattoo culture. Between the late 1890s down to early 1950s Charlie Wagner, an apprentice of O’Reilly took over the business after working with Sam, and he modified O’Reilly’s tattoo machine design and got his patent in 1904 which had a hand in helping him become one of the most famous Bowery artists. Also, he became known for covering up names of ex-lovers, obscene tattoos on sailors who were forbidden from having such, etc. This gave rise to a unique American style of tattooing.
Flash; a paper picture of various tattoo designs that are hung on walls of tattoo shops which give artists a variety of designs to work with was also birthed in New York. Also in the early 20th century Lew the Jew, a tattoo artist improved upon and popularized them as it made the job easy since anyone could walk in and choose any design on the Flash and walk out with the design tattooed on their skin in no time. Since then, flash drawings have always been a necessity in tattoo parlours everywhere.
In the 20th century, while tattoos made their way into high society as both a fashion statement and a label of uniqueness, they also became associated with gang fidelity. Christian Panaite, an exhibition curator, said Europeans travelling to the states got tattoos to make statements and Manhattan women who got little hidden ink works, did so as a mark of rebellion in a world of repression.
The tattoo industry kept progressing and gaining more popularity until 1961 when the New York Health Department placed a ban on tattoo practice due to various stories. Even though the official statement attributed the ban to an increase in Hepatitis B that seemed to be springing from tattoo parlours, the tattoo industry continued to progress. Despite this report, some tattoo artists around at that time would swear it was a high ranking bureaucrat out for a pound of flesh from a tattoo artist who broke his heart (probably after inking her name on his biceps). Even though the ban forced the tattooing culture to slow down, it didn’t completely halt as a lot of mainstream visual artists started getting into the art form. Most of the artists like Mike Bakaty would carry out his ink business in his apartment while exhibiting his traditional works in gallery shows. His studio was said to be the longest-running tattoo studio in New York City as he proceeded to set up a tattoo shop once the ban was lifted. Panaite, who embarked on the Historical Society exhibition research got a tattoo of a bird from Bakaty’s son before he did in a bid to keep the memory of his mother fresh.
According to Panaite despite the controversial ban on tattoos, only one of the various artists who were featured in the exhibition research was actually imprisoned during the ban and was let out after about two days because he wasn’t actually caught in the act. During this period it was easy to avoid being caught by inspectors as only the act of tattooing was illegal and by 1980s, tattoo artists started owning storefronts in the Bronx, where even law officers go to get their skin inked. The ban was ultimately lifted in 1997, and currently, there are more than 270 tattoo shops across New York City.
Panaite, who was born in Romania, had little knowledge of tattoos before he started his research on it’s New York history and so enchanted was he with the art that he got another tattoo on New Year’s Eve, the date he became a naturalized American citizen. He weaved the date into the word ‘Brooklyn’, a style that dates back to the 1930s, where people would tattoo their social security number engraved on their skin within words and patterns. According to Panaite, the tattoo would serve as a permanent ‘just in case’ proof of his new roots.