Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art

When I was 18 a friend of mine went into the Marine Corps. He came back from Parris Island with an intense desire for a tattoo. This was before acquiring a tattoo was made with about as much consideration as buying a new pair of flip-flops. This was back when getting a tattoo was a big deal. Now, anyone under 30 won’t remember this, but believe me when I tell you that back in the day, getting a tattoo was pretty much left to aspiring sideshow acts, white trash (whose tattoos were always done outside the confines of an actual tattoo establishment — that weird greenish ink and sad little block lettering always gave it away), prisoners, and military types — or anywhere these types intersected.  Of course my friend was a military type — that fact had escaped me as I was a late bloomer in the independence department, assuming we would all troop towards adulthood in the same direction more or less — and then I realized that oh yeah! This is the part where we grow up and do stupid things that we regret later. Or not, in the case of my friend. We’ve since lost touch and I don’t know how many tattoos he’s collected (but I’m sure it’s several. They are like potato chips — you never stop at just one). But I would wager that he’s not regretted a single one, especially that first one, which he designed himself. Which, in retrospect, was a pretty nice piece of work.

Around the same time — the year of our Great Tattoo Debate (no, I was not the kind of friend you took along on drunken, impulsive moments. I was the kind of friend who called you in a panic after such moments, like an adolescent version of your mother) — I bought an old book I found in a secondhand shop called Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art by Albert Parry, published in 1933, as a gift for my friend. It was a wild ride through the Bowery District in lower Manhattan, a glimpse into a world that my wide-eyed teen-aged self has never forgotten. I never gave him the book. I couldn’t part with it. Beautifully illustrated, with reproductions of classic tattoo designs, black-and-white photos of full-body tattoos, cartoons, and packed with bizarre anecdotes, the book is that rare cultural piece that is somehow both authoritative and ridiculous. Kind of like tattoos themselves.

Here’s an anecdote from the book, one with a little local flavor:

Several years ago while with the Gloucester fishing fleet, I encountered a brawny Newfoundlander who, having been about somewhat, had collected a choice gallery of nudes, tattooed in strategic points all over his body. Since we frequently worked partially stripped, his collection was held in great esteem by our shipmates. However, he inadvertently married a pious lass from back home who, during nuptial explorations, discovered his gallery and promptly sent him off to the tattoo artist to have ruffled skirts and brassieres put on the ladies. You can well imagine the razzing he was subjected to when he returned to the fleet.

And this, from a renowned tattoo artist of the early part of the 20th century, a man called Professor O’Reilly:

Professor O’Reilly used to declare solemnly that an American sailor without a tattoo was like a ship without grog — not seaworthy.

Times have changed. The Bowery has since been gentrified to a large extent, and so have tattoos. Yet the book remains, a window into a time when tattoos lived up to their name: a permanent, tribal imprint that marked you as not like everyone else, not in the main stream of things, something other. Now a tattoo means the opposite. A trend marking the utterly unremarkable: you. These days so many poorly executed and just plain boring tattoos are littering so many of us that I can’t help thinking that a book like Tattoo couldn’t even be written today. At least, not in a way that would make you want to return to that same book, 80 years after it was first published.

Vintage Business Cards of New York Tattoo Artists

Tattoo by Albert Parry, published in 1933

Look for this book whenever you’re out and about at flea markets and used book stores. It was reissued in paperback in 2006 by Dover, but it is not quite the same as the original hardcover, with its label pasted on the linen cover with the words “Good Luck” transcribed across the surface in the style of a 1930s-era tattoo.

Good Luck. You’re gonna need it.

Related links you might like: Ugliest Tattoos (prepare to waste some major time perusing the design disasters on this site — but it’s not for sensitive types, morally or aesthetically), plus a bit more about Albert Parry if you’re interested.

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