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Live Tattooing Featured in Exhibit Tracing 300 Years of Big Apple Body Art

By Emily Frost | January 3, 2017 5:09pm
 The New-York Historical Society is presenting the history of tattoo culture in New York City in a new exhibit this February. 
History of Tattoos Explored in New Exhibit
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UPPER WEST SIDE — From the invention of the electric tattoo machine on the Bowery in 1891 to the professionalization of the art form, a new exhibit at the New-York Historical Society traces body art's 300-year history in the Big Apple.

"Tattooed New York," which opens Feb. 3, focuses on the city as the focal point of groundbreaking moments in tattoo history — from Native American body paint in the 1700s to the global influence of local tattoo artists today.

More than 250 images and objects, including designs from the 1930s and an original electric pen, help tell New York City's role in tattoo history.  

In the early 1800s, sailors used their own manual tattoo kits to create mementos of their travels and good luck charms, but the first professional tattoo artist, Martin Hildebrandt, didn't set up shop in Lower Manhattan until 1859, according to the museum.

The next major advance came in 1891 when Samuel O'Reilly invented the electric tattoo machine on the Bowery after studying Thomas Edison's electric pen. The machine "instantly made tattooing cheaper, faster and more widely available," the museum said. 

The exhibit also delves into the 1961 New York City Health Department ban that forced artists to work in secret, as well as the tattoo renaissance when the ban was lifted 36 years later. 

Throughout "Tattooed New York," curator Cristian Petru Panaite paid special attention to the role of women, including "painted ladies" who showed off their tattoos for money.

It also focuses on the development of women as tattoo artists, starting with pioneer Mildred Hull in the 1930s. Panaite also explores the use of tattoos by women to defy gender norms and as an empowerment tool, the museum said. 

Guests can watch videos of tattoo artists at work in local parlors and take an audio tour led by famous 20th century tattoo artists.

On weekends, live tattoo demonstrations will take place. The lineup can be found on the museum's website.

The exhibit runs through April 30, 2017.