New Haven, Ink.
The “Old School Ink” Exhibit at the New Haven Museum is almost hidden. To find it, you have to walk upstairs and through a series of hallways toward the back of the building. Once you enter, you are immediately confronted by a large, colorful collection of pictures depicting ink on skin. “Old School Ink” only takes up one room, but delivers more than enough imagery and information to submerge you in the vibrant world and rich history of New Haven tattoo culture. The exhibit is a provocative exploration of the significance of tattoos to their owners, their creators, and to society at large. It is both local and global in scope, simultaneously communicating the uniqueness of New Haven’s tattoo story, and evoking an appreciation for the natural human desire to adorn one’s body.
“The ‘Old School’ as we mean it here is a dedication to excellence, to improving one’s craft, to learning from predecessors and contributing to the community at large,” reads the introductory passage at the front of the exhibit. The images and texts present tattooing as a sophisticated art form that is constantly evolving, both artistically and technologically. In the early twentieth century tattoo artists would complete an outline of their design using stencils, pressing charcoal or graphite through the narrow openings in the stencil frame to create a drawing. At the same time, a New Haven-born tattoo artist named Samuel O’Reilly first patented the electric tattoo machine, a key global development in the craft of tattooing. Inspired by the machinery of dental pluggers and Edison’s electric pen, O’Reilly decided to bundle up tattoo needles and attach them to a motor: a strategy that allowed him to tattoo more quickly and accurately. Since then, a variety of innovations have fundamentally changed the art of tattooing, but the powerful allure of the craft remains the same. “Once you start doing this, it tends to just take over… You’re constantly thinking about how you’re going to do what you’re going to do next, and how to get better, and how you’re going to approach the next project,” tattoo artist Joe Capobianco says in an interview for the exhibit.
Tattooing has historically been used to punish outlaws. In the exhibit, an old circus advertisement displays a bearded man’s torso covered in blue and red animal tattoos, demonstrating the historical associations of tattooing with rebellion. The title reads, “the Greek Albanian tattooed from head to foot in Chinese tartary as punishment for engaging in rebellion against the king.” In the 1700s, criminals in New Haven were tattooed with a letter corresponding to their crime. As late as 1979, tattoo artists were arrested in Hartford for violating laws that stated only licensed physicians could administer tattoos. Even today, tattoos have not managed to fully shake their criminal connotations. While improvements have been made, tattoos are still stigmatized; people often recommend hiding tattoos during job interviews or in formal situations. What is it about marking skin that is so inherently rebellious? How did this method of branding criminals evolve into an art form? Perceptions of tattooing as a form of expression and as the mark of a criminal remain intertwined today. The overlap of art and crime is a poignant reflection of the rigidity of society’s expectations and the consequences for those that deviate.
Tattoo art’s complicated history is not the only reason it remains distinct from other art forms. Perhaps the most unique aspect of tattoo art is that it depends on the relationship between artist and canvas. A tattoo’s image and implications are the product of a joint creative process, a dual creation from two expressives forces. “My tattoos signify relationships with my family and friends, people I care about, romantic and interpersonal relationships, music and nerdship: that’s who I am,” Matt Fantastic, a tattoo fanatic, says in an interview for the exhibit. Of course, today it’s fairly cliché to talk about how a tattoo reflects personal traits. It’s easy to imagine a superficial character trying to demonstrate their “artistic depth” and “rebellious nature” by “expressing what’s inside.” But tattoos are often a profound reflection of the owner’s disposition, life story, or other qualities. For most, tattoos are filled with meaning, and the history of tattoo art represents a compelling narrative of an often-overlooked human instinct, a powerful indicator of the human need for expression, and a beautiful demonstration of human creativity through the decades.
“Although we think of tattoos as permanent, we know that the human body is not. Awareness of this dichotomy fuels a certain nostalgia and concern for the passage time within the American tattoo tradition.” The exhibit is acutely aware of how tattoos are an art form that lives with and on the body. The passage of time is a critical concern for an artist whose canvas is constantly growing and aging. In their craft, tattooers find a way to create art that is truly living and that necessarily embodies the constant change and uncertainty that permeates human life.
In spite of their stigmatized history, tattoos have emerged as a powerful form of expression. The “Old School Ink” exhibit at the New Haven Museum is a compelling illustration of how tattoos have changed as both an art form and a cultural custom. Widespread interest in tattoos today is a promising indication of a growing acceptance of tattoos, the freeing of self-expression in our society, and the progress of our endless journey to explore the human condition.