NYC tattoo exhibits open at New-York Historical Society, South Street Seaport Museum

We live in a very tatty town.

Two separate exhibitions celebrating our inky epidermis and the crazily colorful past of skin decoration just opened in NYC: “Tattooed New York” at the New-York Historical Society, and “The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of the Modern Tattoo at the South Street Seaport Museum.

The New York Historical Society Museum & Library’s 300-year retrospective traces tattooing from its roots in Native American body art through its embrace by sailors, soldiers and circus sideshow performers. It doffs a cap to the Bowery’s powerful role in tattoo culture of the 1920s and 30s, explores the evolution of tattoo technology and probes the history behind the 1961 Health Department tattooing ban as a result of Hepatitis B concerns, which drove practitioners and their customers underground until the ban was lifted in 1997.

“Painted ladies” – many of whom claimed the be “the first,” “the original,” or “the most beautiful,” also get their due in the form of photographs and historical tidbits.

The Seaport Museum’s exhibit is an homage to the life and art of Augustus (Gus) Wagner (1872-1941), a literally colorful merchant marine believed to be one of the nation’s first professional tattoo artists.

Wagner, bowled over at seeing his first heavily tattooed man, “Captain Costentenus the Greek Albanian” in a sideshow at the age of 12, Wagner traveled the world learning the craft while tattooing himself. He claimed to have learned the art of tattooing by hand from tribesmen in Borneo and Java. In 1904, after meeting circus aerialist Maude Stevens at the Louisiana Expo, taught her the art of “hand-poked” tats as well.

Gus and Maude married, had a daughter who also became a tattoo artist and traveled all over small town U.S.A. practicing their craft and promulgating tattooing beyond the bodies of sailors, soldiers and freak shows to the American masses.

Most artifacts to be shown are reproductions due to the fragile nature of the originals, but videos and lectures will also help give insight into Wagner’s role in popularizing wild and wonderful dermatological designs.

If you go:

“The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo” at The Seaport Museum, 12 Fulton St., opened Jan. 29 and runs through June 4. The Seaport Museum is open 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The exhibition is included with Museum admission: South Street Seaport Museum members are admitted free. Prices are $12 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, and $6 for children ages 2 – 17. Tickets can be purchased online at https://southstreetseaportmuseum.org/ or in person.

“Tattooed New York” at the New-York Historical Society,” 170 Central Park West, runs from today (Feb. 3) through April 30. The exhibition is open Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday from 10am to 6pm, Friday from 10am to 8pm and Sundays 11am to 5pm. Admission is $20 for adults, $15 for teachers and seniors, $12 for students, $6 for children between the ages of five and 13 and free to children four and under. Friday nights are pay-as-you-wish Fridays from 6 pm – 8 pm. More information is at www.nyhistory.org