Let me begin by saying, for the record, I LOVE the New York Historical Society.
Why this place isn’t on every tourists’ “must see” list is beyond me. The miracle of this incredible institution (New York City’s oldest museum, founded way back in 1804) begins to unfold the moment you step inside. Just to the left of the main entrance is an incredible wall of artifacts including the death mask of Aaron Burr and a pair of antique dueling pistols similar to the ones used in the infamous, fatal encounter between Burr and Alexander Hamilton, the chair George Washington sat in on the balcony of Federal Hall moments after being sworn in as our first President and painting that may or may not be Royal Governor of New York, Lord Cornbury, in drag (if it isn’t him, it’s a really unfortunate looking woman).
There’s also the last surviving piece of the lead statue of George the Third which once stood in Bowling Green Park at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. The tail of the horse King George was riding is mounted on the wall alongside a painting commemorating the statue’s destruction.
After hearing the Declaration of Independence read aloud for the first time, a mob of New Yorkers tore the statue down and had it melted into patriot bullets. How badass is that?!
And that’s just the beginning. Don’t get me started on its incredible collection of Hudson River School Paintings or the remarkable DiMenna Children’s History Museum which features a wealth of interactive exhibits that always go over well with the museum’s littlest visitors.
This month, the NYHS is offering an exhibit detailing the history of tattoos and tattooing in NYC, Tattooed New York.
Tattoo have been in New York since before it was New Amsterdam. Native Americans living in present day Manhattan and the surrounding area used tattoos as protective talismans, religious emblems and as a means of identification. It wasn’t uncommon for members of various Iroquois tribes, for example to sign documents by drawing images of their unique tattoos. Tattoos were also by soldiers to identify themselves, although with grimmer undertones. Enlisted men on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line tattooed their names across their chests or limbs during the Civil War as a means of being identified in the event that they died in battle. And sailors passed time on long sea voyages by tattooing one another with ink created from whale and shark semen, among other things.
The advent of Samuel O’Reilly’s electric tattoo machine, patented in 1891 and adapted from Thomas Edison’s electric pen, changed tattooing forever, allowing designs to be completed quickly and inexpensively and making tattoos accessible to new, broad segments of the general population. Flash art likewise furthered the art form’s advancement. Pioneered by New York artists such as Lew Alberts and Bill Jones in their Bowery shops, Flash Art were simple, prefab designs collected in books clients could select from.
At the turn of the century a number of Tattooed Ladies became minor celebrities and attained a degree of financial independence by allowing themselves to be ogled by curious patrons of side shows. By the 1950’s, tattoos were often considered symbolic of degeneracy, criminality or, at the very least, rebellion against societal norms.
In 1961 a three decade long ban on tattooing began in NYC. The city claimed the ban was in response to a Hep B outbreak that it attributed, without much evidence, to a tattoo parlor in Coney Island. However, many suspected that efforts to “clean up” the city in preparation for the 1964 World’s Fair may have actually been the impetus for the ban. Finally lifted in 1997, the ban did little to deter NYC’s tattoo artists who went underground, operating in secret to avoid attracting the ire of the health department.
Today, tattoos have moved into the mainstream. Everyone from your high school principal, to your boss, to your mom is likely to be sporting a little ink. And modern motivations for getting a tattoo are as varied as the art itself.
From women commemorating triumph over breast cancer, to firefighters honoring fallen brothers and sisters, to college students permanently etching personal mantras onto their forearms, tattoos remain deeply personal reflections of who we are and who we hope to be.
Do you have any tattoos? We’d love to see them!
Post pictures of your ink- especially if you have a tattoo with a New York theme- to our social media!
And catch Tattooed New York now through April 29th at The New York Historical Society.
The New York Historical Society
170 Central Park West at 77th Street