Lonely Planet Writer

The history of tattooing is to be explored at a new New York exhibition

An upcoming exhibition at the New-York Historical Society highlights an intricate, yet unconventional, art form. Tattooed New York will feature more than 250 works spanning from the 1700’s to today, delving into the State’s history with, and contribution to, the art of tattooing.

Pin up woman striking a strong woman pose
Pin up woman striking a strong woman pose Image by Getty

“When you step into a tattoo studio today, you can’t help notice the constant buzzing of tattoo machines in the hands of artists. This is not just an ambient sound. This is the sound of New York innovation, and it’s something we wanted to emphasise in Tattooed New York,” curator Cristian Petru Panaite tells Lonely Planet News. “Based on Thomas Edison’s electric pen, the first electric rotary tattoo machine was patented by [Bowery-based] tattooist Samuel O’Reilly in 1891. The machine revolutionised the craft, art, and business of tattooing in New York.” An example of Edison’s electric autographic pen, which made tattooing cheaper and faster, is included in the exhibition.

Edison’s electric autographic pen made tattooing cheaper and faster,
Edison’s electric autographic pen made tattooing cheaper and faster, Image by New-York Historical Society

“The sheets of tattoo designs you see covering the walls of tattoo studios – and on view in the exhibition – are a New York invention, too,” says Panaite. “These designs, called flash, have not only defined traditional American tattooing for over a century, but they continue to inspire artists from all over the world. Visitors will have the opportunity to see many examples of flash along with intricate tattoo designs and discover for themselves the fascinating history of this transformative art.”

Tattoo artist designing motifs
Tattoo artist designing motifs Image by Getty Images

The exhibition also explores Native American body art, seen in portraits like Mohawk and Mohican tribal kings from 1710, sideshow culture, including “the first professional tattooed lady,” New York City’s 1961 tattoo ban (in place until 1997), and the contributions of notable artists who practised throughout the decades. Visitors can examine a Native American tattooing kit used for medicinal purposes and a sailor’s manual tattooing kit, as well as photographs, paintings, and sculptures that document the vibrant ink-based art.

A flash sheet from legendary tattoo artist Bob Wicks is in the exhibition
A flash sheet from legendary tattoo artist Bob Wicks is in the exhibition Image by New-York Historical Society

Unlike tattoos, this exhibition is temporary and runs from 3 February to 30 April, 2017.