BY JANEL BLADOW
Walking home one night recently, I was reminded why I love my neighborhood. Yellow light shimmered from the old street lamps, making me feel a sense of history. It was magical and beautifully quiet … until the choppers over the Brooklyn Bridge and sirens along Pearl Street announced the arrival of El Chapo to the Manhattan Correctional Center on Park Row.
TAT MASTER… The South Street Seaport Museum (SSSM) opened its latest exhibit last week: “The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo.” The show’s curator Martina Caruso, the SSSM’s collections manager and registrar, gave Seaport Report an exclusive tour.
The idea for the show came to her a year ago as she looked at Wagner’s drawings. “These drawings are jewels of visual imagery,” she said, “and shouldn’t be hidden away.”
She imagined an exhibit centered on Wagner’s early years as a sailor and set about getting grants to cover reproduction of some extremely fragile paperworks in the collection of Alan Govenar and Kateta Doolin.
Wagner, born in 1872 in the boat building town of Marietta on the Ohio River, was 12 when he saw his first tattooed man — “Captain Costenenus the Greek Albanian” — in a traveling show, and he was hooked. Wagner became a traveling salesman, laborer and merchant marine sailor, calling himself “a professional globetrotter.”
He learned to tattoo with handmade tools from tribesmen in Java and Borneo. By 1901 he had some 264 tattoos, and seven years later more than 800, and promoted himself as “the most artistically marked up man in America.” He spent the rest of his life traveling as a circus performer, carnival tattooed man and a tattoo artist decorating the bodies of others, including his heavily tatted wife Maude.
The exhibit includes tattoo flashes — sketches of tattoo designs in canvas books — and his scrapbook, with 400 pages of press clips, postcards, drawings and photos.
For the show’s opening night, the museum teamed up with Dare Devil Tattoo (141 Division St.) and auctioned off two tattoos of Wagner’s designs.
“Our goal is to keep Gus’s art alive and preserve his legacy,” said Caruso, who added that just to fix the binding on his massive scrapbook will cost $18,000, “before we can open and study it.”
For more on the exhibit, and tattoo culture in general, see Puma Pearl’s deep dive.
“The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo” runs Wednesday–Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m., through June 4, at SSSM, 12 Fulton St.
SAILING INTO THE SUNSET… Whitney Barrat stepped down as executive director of the Old Seaport Alliance last week after three years at the helm of the business-community organization. She’s headed up to Lincoln Center, where she’ll help transform Avery Fisher Hall into the new David Geffen Hall. “Very excited, but I will miss the Seaport,” she told us. “I deeply appreciate the opportunity to have worked with so many in the community, and beyond, who are so passionate about the historic Seaport district.”
DA BUS, DA BUS… The bright red Downtown Connection bus added a new stop right in our neighborhood. The new drop-off at South Street and Peck Slip, right in front of The Paris Cafe, 119 South St. Very convenient if you’re carrying heavy bags. The original pick up location at Water and Fulton Streets remains. This is the first new stop in seven years for the bus, and the 38th stop along the route to connect the Seaport with Battery Park. “The ongoing transformation of the Seaport District is exciting,” said Downtown Alliance president Jessica Lappin. “We hope that this additional stop will benefit our neighbors and bring greater foot traffic to the Seaport.”
ALL HANDS ON DECK… The next meeting of Save Our Seaport (SOS) — the group dedicated to saving South Street’s working waterfront, ships and museum — is Wednesday, Feb. 15, 6:30 p.m., at St. Margaret’s House, 49 Fulton St., rooms 1 & 2. Want to pitch in, raise a problem, or present a solution? Then come be part of the community.