|Should you go?
|Best thing I saw or learned
|The story of Millie Hull from the Bowery. Family Circle magazine profiled her in December 1936 as New York’s “only lady tattoo artist.”
She explained her choice of profession by saying she found tattooing “more interesting than embroidery.”
At this point, it is rare that a museum sneaks up on me. I believe (well, I hope) my database is complete, though of course museums are always opening–and sometimes closing–in this town. However the other day as I was wandering along the blurry borders between the Lower East Side and Chinatown on the way to the Museum at Eldridge Street, I stumbled on the DareDevil Tattoo Parlor — AND Tattoo Museum.
When I first put my museum list together, I was excited by a tattoo museum on Staten Island. And saddened to discover it was defunct long before I started this endeavor. And yet here on Division Street, all unknown to me, was another.
A moment with Google confirmed that DareDevil had a nonprofit to conserve and curate the collection. By my reckoning, that makes it a legit tattoo museum.
The DareDevil Museum of Tattoo History presents a large and important collection of American tattoo art, related media, and vintage tattooing equipment. (Note that as of this review other tattoo cultures — Maori, Japanese, etc., aren’t part of the mandate.) It tells brief stories of some important American important tattoo artists. It also showcases some amusing articles from publications like “Popular Mechanix” offering quaintly dated perspectives on tattooing, tattooers, and the tattooed.
Inside DareDevil Tattoos
DareDevil asks that visitors not take pictures of the museum displays, so I can’t show them to you. I can describe them, though.
It’s a neat, hipster-modern kind of place, open from the front waiting area to the back where the tattooists work. The tattoo museum displays run along the right wall, while the artists are buzzing away at tables just to your left. It vividly ties tattoo history to the contemporary practice.
The artwork (called “flash” in tattoo jargon) was well organized and carefully conserved. It covers tattooing in the 20th century, including many major early tattoo artists. The place duly treats the collection with the right balance of lightheartedness (gosh there are a lot of anchors, hearts, wild horses, and ladies in various stages of undress) and seriousness.
In terms of unexpected or unlikely connections, this museum reminded me of the Grolier Club’s stock-and-banknote show. The tattoo “flash” on display was the equivalent of clip art, created by tattooists to demonstrate their capabilities and give un-creative patrons options from which to choose. And of tattooing equipment has a strong family resemblance to engraving.
Some Tattoo Fun Facts
- Samuel O’Reilly invented the first electric tattooing machine in 1891, inspired by a design he saw for an engraving pen invented by Thomas Edison. They haven’t changed all that much in over a century since then.
- Modern tattooing started in a parlor at 11 Chatham Square, just a stone’s throw from DareDevil’s location, making it a fitting locale for the museum.
- Tattooing was legal in New York up until 1961, then illegal until 1997. DareDevil doesn’t explain why but I looked it up. It seems the city outlawed tattooing for a variety of reasons: ostensibly a fear of Hepatitis B, a desire to improve public morals prior to the 1964 World’s Fair, and possibly some personal animosity on the part of city officials to boot.
A Unique, Bright, Fun, Young Museum
DareDevil was a bright, energetic, cheerful place. Everyone was super friendly, and the staff were pleased to take some time to talk to me about the art on display. They highlighted key figures from tattooing’s storied past, like Stoney St. Clair, a circus sword swallower and tattooist who worked from a wheelchair, and Norman Keith Collins, aka “Sailor Jerry,” who was hugely influential in the 1920s and 1930s (and who has a rum named after him today).
Tattooing doesn’t get a lot of museum time. The South Street Seaport Museum has an exhibit focused on the story (and art) of one particular guy, Gus Wagner. And the New-York Historical Society had an exhibition on tattooing in early 2017. But I’m happy to find a place devoted to the topic.
Although still very young, I got the sense this museum is growing in a good direction. I liked the wall texts— brief, and often neatly handwritten—though I did wish for a bit more explanation. Additionally, like many small museums this place could use a bit more space to better display its holdings. But I really appreciated the link from history to contemporary — the artists at work at DareDevil are in a very real way part of the exhibition.
At this stage of my project, I tend to grumble when I discover a new New York museum. Not another one! But I was happy to add this one — it’s unique, interesting, and worth a visit.
|141 Division Street, Manhattan
|General Admission: Free, unless you are inspired to get a tattoo while you are there
|Other Relevant Links