The History of Tattoos in New York, from Bowery Sensation to Banned Art

From Bowery Sensation to Banned Art – The History of Tattoos in New York,

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The History of Tattoos in New York, from Bowery Sensation to Banned Art

Andreas Feininger, “Bowery Tattoo Parlor” (1940s) (courtesy New-York Historical Society) Tattooing in New York has been a sideshow attraction, a banned underground practice, and an elite society trend. Performers in the early 1900s Bowery dime museums boasted wild tales of forced tattoos at the hands of “Indians,” while in the late 19th century, they were a fad with fashionable ladies, who got Japanese-style dragons and flowers inked in discreet places. Thomas Edison pioneered an electric pen in 1875, supposedly trying out some dots on himself in the process (although it was intended for reproducing documents). Then, just under a century later, in 1961, the city’s health department declared that it was “unlawful for any person to tattoo a human being.” The rule referenced several cases of Hepatitis B, but was likely meant to smooth the city’s rough edges ahead of the 1964 World’s Fair — never mind that the fully tattooed Betty Broadbent had been a star in the beauty pageant of the 1939 World’s Fair. Tattooed New York at the New-York Historical Society explored this complex history chronologically, emphasizing Gotham’s centrality in the development of the medium. John Simon after John Verelst, “Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, King of the Maquas” (1710), mezzotint (courtesy New-York Historical Society Library) The exhibition, organized by Assistant Curator of Exhibitions Cristian Petru Panaite, opens with the indigenous tattoo traditions of New York, visualized through a group of 1710 mezzotints called “ The Four Indian Kings. ” Created by British printmaker John Simon after the work of John Verelst, they depict three Mohawk and one Mohican who went to London to ask for support for their tribe’s interests. The emissaries were treated more as a cultural sensation than a persuasive political force, unfortunately, and Simon’s prints were one of many responses to their unfamiliar appearance, including their tattoos. While I would have loved to learn more about the practice in the 18th-century United States, Tattooed New York […]