Flash From The Bowery

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton

humans-of-nyNew York City is a place for pictures. For some reason it’s always been a city where everyone evolves into their own unique persona, full of eccentric characters. Perhaps that’s something you’ll see in any city where people congregate from all points? Perhaps it’s the same way in others? The author had lived in Chicago before he came to New York, but it’s not going to be the same there. New York City draws people not just from the continent, but from all other nations as well.

 

Brandon Stanton, like a great many people here, was fascinated by the faces of the city. He started a Facebook page to display his photos, and his audience ballooned. He would go around the city looking for unusual characters to photograph, and he succeeded in finding some very unusual ones, each with a unique story. He found a janitor at Columbia University who’d studied at the school at night, and after 10 years, was now a Columbia graduate! There was an old man dropping in to see his wife at a nursing home, a cab driver and former French teacher from Niger, and some boys in a canoe in flooded Breezy Point. For some of the photos in this fascinating book, he provides info on the subject. But in others, he simply gives a description. One of the characters doesn’t give a name, but says “don’t shoot until the trucks move, I don’t want people to think we’re standing around doing nothing.”

 

My only fault with this book is that it may have had an unfair advantage. There have been a great many books like this, and it’s not unusual for a blog to become a bestseller. But this book had a massive following via facebook, which isn’t hard to do. Then again, maybe this is simply the age of social media? If this book hadn’t developed a great following in the first place, it would’ve been ignored, and that’s no good either. As for the photos themselves, they’re wonderful. Stanton frames the shots perfectly, and the colors are beautiful. But I think the book could be developed further as a text. Some of the subjects have interesting stories (like the girl who switched from ballet dancing to being a trapeze artist) and this could be a series of articles in a magazine.