The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo

The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo

South Street Seaport Museum is currently home to an exhibit about the life and times of one of America’s trailblazing tattooists.

It’s an exciting age for tattoos, not only because more body art is cropping up around the world at a head-spinning rate, but also because the art form is finally receiving the recognition that it deserves. Nothing represents this widespread embrace of tattooing more than the fact that so many museums have held exhibits centered around body art. The South Street Seaport Museum (SSSM) recently jumped onboard with this venture to preserve the history behind body art by collaborating with the Alan Governor and Kaleta Doolin Tattoo Collection to host an instillation of items that once belonged to one of the earliest tattooists in the United States, Gus Wagner.

The exhibit is composed of several priceless artifacts, which all survived the last century mostly unscathed. It includes Wagner’s scrapbook, three tattoo design books, more than 50 tattoo flash sheets, hand-carved tattoo instruments, two albums of photographs, and more. His 150-page scrapbook provides a means of imagining what his otherwise obscured and interesting life was like. It contains photographs, newspaper clippings, drawings, official documents, and more, recounting Wagner’s career as a self-proclaimed “Globe Trotting Artist and Taxidermist” through a series of letters and other memorabilia.

A lady head design by Gus Wagner. #GusWagner #SouthStreetSeaportMuseum #tattoohistory

Wagner never would have been remembered as a legendary tattooist if it wasn't for his original career as a sailor, it was on a ship that he would first discover the art form. By 1901, he had nearly 300 tattoos of his own, which facilitated his career in entertainment as “the most artistically marked up man in America.” There was only so much money to be made exhibiting his own heavily tattooed body, so Wagner turned to making tattoos himself. While working in the circus, he met his wife, Maud, and after teaching her the art of hand-poked tattoos, they traveled all over the country creating body art, helping make the industry into what it is today.

Though the Wagner installation is engaging on its own, SSSM went the extra mile and invited two veteran tattooists from the NYC scene to do live tattooing on the opening night of the exhibit. Daredevil Tattoo’s own Michele Myles and Brad Fink set up shop behind the museum’s front windows and tattooed Wagner’s original flash — a Japanese style dragon head and a clipper above a pair of shaking hands — onto clients. Though most of the body art Wagner created passed away with their collectors long ago, Myles and Fink are doing their part to preserve his legacy by translating his designs into contemporary tattoos. It’s not everyday that you hear tattoo machines thrumming in the halls of a museum.

The Wagner installation will be on display at South Street Seaport Museum until June 4, so make it out to learn about this fascinating figure from the industry's past before the show ends. Admission is only $12. The museum is investing in becoming a bastion for maritime tattoo history, and the directors hope to showcase more relics from the bygone days of body art, so keep an eye on their website for future exhibits. If you want to make a donation towards the care and conservation of this unique collection, contact the SSSM at collections@seany.org.

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