New Exhibit Explores the History of American Tattoos

An attractive young woman covered in tattoos.

Photo courtesy of Ed Merritt at Flickr Creative Commons.

Last Friday, The New-York Historical Society introduced a new exhibit called “Tattooed New York.” The exhibit explores New York’s tattoo history, beginning with its origins in Native American culture.

Indigenous people used tattoos for one primary reason: to mark themselves as belonging to a certain tribe. But it was also commonplace for warriors to get tattoos to symbolize all the battles they had won. Additionally, many Native Americans (both men and women) got tattoos of their spirit animal.

Back then, tattoos were performed using sharpened objects such as bone or rock. Once the design was carved into the flesh, soot and natural dyes were used to permanently stain the wound.

But body art has come a long way since then. Gone are the days of using bones and rocks to chisel away at the skin and in are the days of the modern day needle gun.

The development of the needle gun can be traced all the way back to 1876, when Thomas Edison patented his electric pen invention. While the pen itself was never intended to be used as a tattoo gun, a tattoo artist by the name of Samuel O’Reilly saw the potential for it to be used as one. Thus, O’Reilly designed his own tattoo gun (based on Edison’s electric pen) in 1891.

But during this time, tattoos were still considered largely taboo in European culture. Sailors were the first ones to really popularize the practice. But even then, tattoos didn’t reach main steam popularity until the late 1950s.

In 1961, the state of New York actually outlawed the practice of tattooing. This was in large part due to hepatitis outbreaks. Tattooing wasn’t made legal again until 1997.

The exhibit itself is very intriguing. It’s complete with pictures, diagrams, artifacts, and drawings that depict New York’s rich history of tattoos. It’s certainly unusual, which is what makes the exhibit so appealing in the first place.

 

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