New Exhibition: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo


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tattoo-exhibitIn celebration of the restoration currently underway in the South Street Seaport Museum’s flagship, the museum has announced its second post-Hurricane Sandy exhibition, The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo beginning on January 29, 2017, open Wednesday to Sunday 11 am to 5 pm, at the Museum’s mezzanine gallery level, accessible from the main entrance of the Museum on 12 Fulton Street.

An Opening Reception with Live Tattoo Demonstration and a Silent Auction will be held Saturday, January 28, 2017 from 6 to 8 pm, RSVP required. Click here for reservation info.

The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo explores Augustus “Gus” Wagner’s (American, 1872-1941) early life as a merchant mariner and tattoo artist who traveled the world, from 1898-1902, and his return to the United States as a professional tattooist and tattooed man.

Gus Wagner was born in 1872 in Marietta, Ohio, a trading and boat building town on the Ohio River. At age twelve he saw his first heavily tattooed man, “Captain Costentenus the Greek Albanian,” in a traveling show. As a young man he hit the road as an itinerant salesman and laborer. In 1897 he boarded the cargo steamer Bellona at Newport News, Virginia, thus embarking on a four-year career as a merchant seaman.

By traveling around the world, Gus Wagner got to know many seaports: Vera Cruz, London, Cape Town, Sydney, Auckland, Honolulu, New York, San Francisco, and others. It was during this time that he discovered the art of tattooing. He claimed that he learned to tattoo from tribesmen in Java and Borneo who showed him how to use traditional hand-made tools.

By 1901, Gus reportedly had 264 tattoos of his own, (and over 800 by 1908) allowing him to promote himself as “the most artistically marked up man in America.” After briefly moving home to Ohio, Gus embarked on a forty-year career as a traveling tattooist, tattooed man, and circus performer. He largely eschewed the new electric tattooing machines that transformed the art form after 1890, and remained faithful to his hand-held instruments. With other wandering artists, he carried tattooing inland from coastal ports, making it part of the culture of small-town America in the 20th century.

The exhibition will show original and reproduced artifacts from the Seaport Museum’s Alan Govenar and Kaleta Doolin Tattoo Collection such as tattooing tools, a selection of tattoo flashes (drawings and sketches, on recycled paper based materials, displaying variations of tattoo designs) and a selection of pages from the artist’s scrapbook – a 400 page book composed of press clippings, postcards, business cards, sketches, and photographs, that relate to his introduction to tattooing as a sailor.

tattoo-exhibit-2Due to the fragile condition of the collection, most of the artifacts will be shown via reproductions. A video will show the turning of the pages of Gus Wagner’s various canvas books, like Gus’s clients were doing nearly a century ago.

The exhibition demonstrates hand tattoo techniques, and makes the case for the importance of researching, documenting, and preserving tattoo collections in museums and research institutes.

The opening reception will take place on Saturday, January 28th, 6 to 8 pm. Two live tattooing demonstrations, with Gus Wagner original designs, will be part of the event, thanks to Daredevil Tattoo Museum’s co-owners Michelle Myles and Brad Fink. A silent auction will also happen during the evening. Auction items include two gift certificates for two Gus Wagner tattoos that Daredevil’s co-owners would make at a later date; one walking tour of New York City’s tattoo history sites by Michelle Myles; and a few rare signed copies of publications and films on tattooing. All funds raised during the evening will be dedicated toward the conservation of the South Street Seaport Museum’s tattoo collection.

Lectures and all-ages public programs will take place throughout the length of the exhibition in collaboration with Daredevil Tattoo Museum, New-York Historical Society, and Tattly.

The exhibition is curated by Alan Govenar, with Martina Caruso, Collections Manager and Registrar, and Michelle Kennedy, Collections Assistant at the Seaport Museum. The design and art direction is curated by Rob Wilson and Christine Picone of Bowne Printers, the Museum’s historic print shop.

This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

Additional funds are provided by Communities Foundation of Texas, Daredevil Tattoo Museum, Tattoo Archive, and the Paul Rogers Tattoo Research Center.

Exhibition Curator Alan Govenar is a writer, folklorist, photographer, and filmmaker. He is president of Documentary Arts. Govenar has a B.A. with distinction in American Folklore from Ohio State University, an M.A. in Folklore and Anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Ph.D. in Arts and Humanities from the University of Texas at Dallas. He is the author of twenty-nine books, including numerous articles on tattooing and has co-authored with Ed Hardy three books on tattooing.

The exhibition is included with Museum admission: South Street Seaport Museum members: free,  $12 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, and $6 for children ages 2 – 17. Tickets can be purchased online or in person at 12 Fulton St.

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