Currently reading : A Little Book of Tattoos
This tiny book of “tattoo designs,” dating from 1873-1910, has been on my radar for a while, so I was thrilled to stumble upon it during a recent trip to the American Folk Art Museum‘s newest exhibition Folk Couture.* Approximately 4.5 x 3.25 inches (11 x 8 cm) with pages of waterproof oilcloth, the pocket-sized book is similar in construction to the logbooks on sea vessels. While the artist’s signature (formerly on the first page) has faded, the book’s creator is likely to have been a seafaring man.
Its interior illustrations–of a man reclined in a hammock, dreaming of romance in the sail of the ship (among others)–evoke the feelings of nostalgia and solitude often associated in the American cultural memory with sailors’ adventures during that period. Although the images of this book’s pages have been quite difficult to track down, especially now that the book is on display, the museum parses many of the pages’ nautical designs and their historical import; for example, the page inscribed with “Remember the Maine” depicts the sinking of the American battleship by that name in the harbor of Havana in 1898. How some of these designs were interpreted as “tattoos” specifically remains somewhat unclear to me, but the clean modeling and graphic sensibility of its images, not to mention the material qualities of this tiny portable object, makes this rare book quite fascinating. I hope someday soon I can examine it with my own two hands and finally see each of its pages.
*The exhibition, which featured thirteen designers’ interpretations of objects in the AFAM collection, merits some attention itself, but for now the tattoo design book remains the apple of my eye. To give a quick sense of the book’s role in the overarching show, the second image shown here served as inspiration for designer Bibhu Mohapatra, interpreted the romantic image into a design that incorporated a strongly patterned body suit with an undulating organza outer layer to visually and conceptually contrast the bold graphics of tattooing with the fleeting romance of the image and the loneliness of being alone in a vast ocean.
[All images and information via the American Folk Art Museum.]