A History Told by Pirates — 'Tattooed New York' at the NYHS

A History Told by Pirates — 'Tattooed New York' at the NYHS

An enthralling exhibit at the New York Historical Society tells the colorful tale of tattooing in the Big Apple from Sam O’Reilly to today.

When you enter the Tattooed New York exhibit at the New York Historical Society, a divider with near life size photos of Dorothy Parker and Theodore Roosevelt on one side and a king from the Maqua tribe on the other greets you, and if it weren’t for a beautifully tattooed duo sandwiched between the historical figures this would seem like any other museum exhibit.


Winding through the next five rooms chock full of hundreds of artifacts, a clash between worlds takes place — the brash and bold world of tattoos melds with the glass cases and lengthy block text expected in a place of academia. Yet it doesn’t feel strange, there is no dichotomy between the two worlds, and this is due to the loving curation of Cristian Petru Panaite.

Photography: Dale May Tattoo Art: Michelle Myles Lady Liberty on Evan Hall, 2016 Digital print on aluminum Photo © Dale May (Courtesy NYHS)

When the project was placed on Panaite’s desk nearly a year and a half ago, his knowledge on the subject went as far as the art on his grandfather’s arm. Then he started digging, and like so many of us when the machine first starts to buzz, he was hooked.


“There was a good story to tell, and the more that I was looking into the history of the Bowery, I realized that one, this was a history that was being forgotten, and two, that this was a history that was still being put together piece by piece,” Panaite explains. “I’m not sure which tattoo artist told me this, but it’s a history told by pirates.”

Bob Wicks (1902–1990) Flash sheet # 36, ca. 1930 Pen and watercolor on art board Collection of Ohio Tattoo Museum (Courtesy NYHS)

In the world of Tattooed New York, Samuel O’Reilly is Blackbeard and his patented electric tattoo machine is his Queen Anne’s Revenge. Almost from the second his patent was approved, O’Reilly’s invention turned tattooing from a fad to an industry, the center of which was New York City, and more specifically, the Bowery in lower Manhattan. It was there that O’Reilly, Charlie Wagner, Bob Wicks, Millie Hull, and the Moskowitz family all plied their trade through the years, and the exhibit is filled to the brim with objects from those long gone days.


Much like how tattooing would be passed down from a master to an apprentice, so too were flash sheets and other mementos. Panaite’s search for materials brought him into the homes and shops of tattooers in all five boroughs (and beyond) as he discovered a treasure trove of priceless items. Some were strange to the modern eye, like a portable tattoo station from the 1930s. Others were a testament to the day and age they were created, like an ingenious window blind from Tony D’Anessa’s shop that had plain black on one side and all of his flash on the other. During the days of the tattoo ban, all D’Anessa had to do was pull it up and all evidence that tattooing had been going on in the room was gone.

Tony D’Annessa (b. 1935) Window shade with flash designs from Tony D’Annessa’s tattoo shop on W. 48th Street, ca. 1962 Ink outline with markers coloring on vinyl (Courtesy NYHS)

Arguably the centerpiece of the exhibit is a statue adorned with artwork from Charlie Wagner’s shop. Legend says that the renowned tattooer used to rent the sculpture out to rich folks for parties, which seems hilarious now, and many people thought that the statue had been lost to the ages when everything from his shop was taken to the dump after his death in 1953. For those of us lucky enough to know the story, it’s truly impressive to see in person, and the rest of us get to learn a significant piece of tattoo history.

Statue from Charlie Wagner’s tattoo shop at 11 Chatham Square, ca. 1930 Polychromed papier-mâché and linen on wood turned base Collection of Adam Woodward (Courtesy NYHS)

It is these stories that bind the exhibition together as it leads you on a trip from the body art of Native American tribes, through the explosion of the art form in the early 20th century, to the three-decade ban on tattooing up until modern times. When it comes to telling the tale that is the history of tattooing, Panaite found that it was the personal connections that matter the most.


“It was exciting for me to learn about all of these connections, and talking with Ed Hardy and with meeting with Thom de Vita, I got to learn all about who influenced who and who was learning from who,” Panaite explains. “So there is this line of artwork going from Thom de Vita to Spider Webb to Ed Hardy, and I think that you get an idea about how tattooing progressed from a sailor-minded business to something more than that.”

John Wyatt (b. 1942) Thom de Vita and client in his studio at 326 E 4th Street, 1976 Gelatin silver print Courtesy of the artist

The full scope of that lineage will be on display as tattooists will be setting up shop towards the rear of the exhibit and adding to New York’s tattoo history throughout the exhibit by tattooing before your very eyes. Their setup will look a little bit different from the photos of Charlie Wagner hard at work seen a few rooms (and decades) earlier, but the spirit is the same.


It’s refreshing to see those that gave their lives to this renegade art form elevated to the level that they deserve. Tattooed New York will be running through April 30th at the NYHS.

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