Today’s historians study tattoo art with great fascination, and it’s only become an intellectual curiosity in the past 20 years. Why not until that point, I don’t know, but I do remember that by the late 90’s there was greater interest in it. Perhaps there’s something fascinating about the kind of artwork that one would have permanently drawn on himself? Tattoos were worn mostly by sailors, and the designs were usually the same, but the question is why.
Flash From The Bowery is a book of original tattoo stencils from the Black Eye Barbershop on the Bowery and Chatham Square, the same tattoo parlor where the electric tattoo gun was invented. It was on The Bowery where you’d find all the tattoo parlors, the same street where Norman Rockwell got the idea for his painting of the tattooist inking out the sailor’s ex-girlfriends. It was a sleazy block, full of bars, flophouses, and what would eventually become CBGB’s. The designs in this book were the “archive” of Black Eye’s resident artist, and when he died in the 1950’s, an employee saved what he could of their supplies. The designs ended up in the hands of Cliff White, a modern day tattooist. But the designs themselves date back much earlier. In those days you couldn’t go to a Barnes & Noble bookstore and buy a full-color coffee table book of tattoos. The artists would trace or photograph the existing tattoos of their customers, and in exchange give them a discount on a new one.
The only problem is the history of the actual designs. I would love to know the origins of the flowers, skulls, dice, scantily clad women. By Cliff White’s account, most of the customers were sailors (hence the large number of ship tattoos) or circus employees. If there were foreign sailors getting tattoos done at Black Eye’s, then I wonder if the American, British, and European designs were markedly different. I saw a photo of some French criminals who were detained at Ellis Island in the 1900’s, and they had tattoos of women, boxers, snakes, the usual art. I’m going to guess that the cards & dice motif might indicate willingness to take risk, while the half-naked women were reminders of home. If you’re at sea for a few months, and there are no women on board, perhaps the tattoo satisfies your erotic needs? The skulls could be descended from the memento mori (“remember, one day you will die”) of classical artwork, evoking a reminder of mortality. Paintings with this motto in mind usually placed a flower next to the skull, symbolizing life & death. Perhaps that explains why flowers were so popular in tattooing? Racism is also evident by the tattoos showing stabbed Chinese heads. Though the author assumes this was from the “Yellow Peril,” I believe it is from the US Navy campaign in China in the 1920’s (seen in the film The Sand Pebbles.)
You can include tattoos in the study of US history, and there’s plenty in there to compare the changes in American habits. Back in the 1950’s, tattoos were the kind of thing the wearer kept hidden, but nowadays they’re commonplace. It used to be considered low-class for women to have tattoos, but now I see “respectable” women with all kinds of ink-Japanese koi, scarabs, boyfriends’ names, even old fashioned sailor tattoos (in better quality than the originals.) Perhaps it has a lot to do with women’s rights? I can just imagine a high school student in the 1960’s showing up to school with a visible shoulder tattoo, the principal would’ve thrown a fit. Now, the principal can’t do anything about it. For teenagers, a tattoo has become a symbol that (at least in their own opinion) they’re all grown up.