Currently reading : Tattoo! at the American Museum of Folk Art

Tattoo! at the American Museum of Folk Art

12 April 2014

Author : jamiejelinski

unnamedWith the recent opening of Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World (2014) at the Japanese American National Museum, less than one year after Tattoo: Flash Art of Amund Dietzel (2013) at the Milwaukee Art Museum, it may appear to many that tattooing has finally succeeded in penetrating the often conservative space of the museum. With two distinct approaches, Perseverance being a photo-based exhibition, and Tattoo centered on Dietzel’s flash, these two exhibitions demonstrate the myriad of ways, as well as the difficulties, of bringing tattoo-themed exhibitions into the museum. However, these exhibitions, whether consciously or unconsciously, build upon a lineage of museum-level tattoo exhibitions that have seemingly came to a heed within recent years. The long historical precedent that these exhibitions follow includes shows such as Flash From the Past: Classic American Tattoo Designs, 1890-1965 (1994) at the Herzberg Circus Collection and Museum, Pierced Hearts and True Love (1995) at The Drawing Center, Body Art: Marks of Identity (1999) at the American Museum of Natural History, Skin Deep: The Art of of Tattoo (1999) at the Mariner’s Museum, The Art of Gus Wagner (1999) at the South Street Seaport Museum, and more recently, Skin and Bones: Tattoos in the Life of the American Sailor (2009) at the Independence Seaport Museum. As the names of each institution suggest, these exhibitions took place at a number of different types of museums, with varying intentions and levels of success. Regardless, what they all have in common is that they follow path carved out a number of decades earlier by the Museum of American Folk Art with an exhibition organized by Herbert W. Hemphill Jr. and Frederick Fried entitled Tattoo! (1971).

Tattoo! opened on October 4, 1971 and closed on January 2, 1972 – over a month after its planned closing of November 28, 1971. Among work by August “Cap” Coleman, Jack Red Cloud, Bob Wicks, Buddy Matt, G. Nelson, Sailor Jerry Collins, Ed Hardy, and a number of others, the exhibition included an installation of an imitation tattoo shop based on photos from Huck Spaulding. Sanka Knox, in a New York Times article from October 8, 1971, makes mention of this, stating that “All that is lacking in the tattoo parlor realistically set up in the Museum of American Folk Art, one flight up at 49 West 53rd Street, is the self-styled “professor” who used to officiate in the painful, if often rewarding, art of body decoration.”

Knox’s usage of the words “used to” is particularly insightful, as tattooing had been banned in New York for roughly ten years by this point. Of course, it is well-documented that tattooing continued in the city despite the several-decade long ban (see Michael McCabe’s New York City Tattoo: The Oral History of an Urban Art). Nevertheless, this faux tattoo shop attracted the attention of police, who arrived the museum prior to the show’s opening with a warrant in attempt to stymie what appeared to be a functioning shop. Knox’s article refers to this incident, stating “Perhaps the first to see the show, even if sketchily, were two policemen patrolling the street, whose attention was riveted by “TATTOO!” a trek up the stairs, with a warrant at the ready, revealed not a tattooing parlor, but a lot of busy people trying to create a facsimile of one and otherwise engaged in lawful activities.”

The exhibition included ninety objects, among them the now legendary sketchbook, “The Tattoo Book”, by the illusive C. H. Fellowes (who has recently become much less illusive due to research by Carmen Nyssen), published by Pyne Press. The work of aforementioned artists such as Coleman, Sailor Jerry, Ed Hardy, and others was organized by tattooers Mike Malone and Kate Hellenbrand, who acted as curatorial consultants, and displayed via slide shows, photographic prints, and drawings, and was contextualized by anecdotal statements and interviews.

With this exhibition summary in mind, it is easy to see that Tattoo! was was truly ahead of its time, bridging gaps between tattooing, art history, and museology that are still being negotiated today.


Braunberger, Christine. “Tattoo Pioneer: Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand” in The Complete Idiots Guide to Speed Reading. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. 251-258.

McCabe, Michael. “Flash and Flashbacks: The Enduring Art of Tattoo. Folk Art vol. 19, no. 2 (1994): 34-41.

Knox, Sandra. “Heyday of Tattooing Recalled at Folk Art Museum.” The New York Times (New York, NY), October 8, 1971: Page 30.

Kosut, Mary. “The Artification of Tattoo: Transformations within a Cultural Field.” Cultural Sociology o, vol. 0 (2013): 1-17.

Sailor Jerry Collins: American Tattoo Master. Edited by Ed Hardy. San Francisco: Hardy Marks Publications, 1994.

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