Sorry for the silence, folks; it has been a rough time for me outside the blogosphere, and this project has unfortunately suffered as a result. However, I am back, and will be filling in some gaps from the blog entry that never was (#5: Pulling it All Together), and of course will be primarily addressing #6: The Exhibition.
Since my last post, I had a little chat with second generation tattoo artist Doug Hardy at his shop, Tattoo City, in San Francisco. Thanks to Doug’s vast knowledge on tattoo history, I have discovered that the context of tattooing here in the San Francisco actually spans further than the military heyday of the mid-nineteenth century. He explains that, since San Francisco has always been a liberal-minded city, tattoos were accepted as forms of art and individual expression. But the art’s popularity skyrocketed when “Janis Joplin got a tattoo at Lyle [Tuttle]’s shop; that exploded tattooing toward the hippie scene; a lot of women also got tattoos at that point. My father [Ed Hardy] opened up America’s first custom-only shop here in 1974, Realistic Tattoo, and that really expanded from tattoo shops with just flash designs on the walls to shops going full-custom. Because it was a Bohemian area, people were really open-minded to [custom tattoos] and the push kept going.” Furthermore, art critic Thomas Albright explains, “Hippie visual expression was frequently tribal in the strictest sense of the word. Much of it was lavished on personal adornment — costumes, jewelry, bells. An overlay of psychedelic decoration worked to transform mass-produced utilitarian objects — automobiles, vans, windows, walls — into artifacts that thereby became identified with the subculture.” There was a lot of customization and individualization in terms of self-expression during this period, which allowed for tattooing and the hippie subculture to go hand-in-hand.
Although the art of tattooing is centuries old, such customization and individualization of tattooing was really born here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Had it not been for the millions of sailors and immigrants and artists passing through, the diverse culture here would not thrive. And had it not been for the liberal thinking, and the practices in free speech and self-expression, tattoos would not have been as embraced as they were nor would they evolve into what they are today.
Such diversity, expression, creativity, and celebration of our ideas and differences could only be born here in the Bay Area. All manners of people have come here to the Bay Area and left their mark on it — some came and went, others called this place home. I asked Doug about what he finds significant or meaningful about tattoos: “Everyone keeps saying how tattoos are ‘forever,’ but that’s not true — they’re not forever; when we die, they go with us. So, it’s this strange, mysterious art that is very transitory; it just goes away. I kind of like that.” Although our tattoos — let alone our earthly presence — are by no means permanent, the art and ideas we produce in our lifetimes and share with one another may stand the test of time. Furthermore, by expressing ourselves through our tattoos as we see fit, we are — like our Costanoan neighbors of yore — celebrating the meaningful events in our lives by recording them symbolically on our bodies; each one is a badge of honor.
At the end of the interview, Doug Hardy reminds me that the San Francisco Bay Area is the tattoo mecca, and then some: “Remember that this is where a bomb went off and it kept going. There is a huge creative influence that started here and really spread throughout the world.” I do not see any signs of its momentum slowing down.
Even for an amateur local historian like myself, I would like to do my part in promoting and preserving local history (tattoo-related and otherwise) for future generations. This class and blog is a practice in historiography and finding new ways to present our local history to the public. Presenting our research and ideas via the internet is very accessible, but unfortunately also intangible. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the more traditional form of presenting public history: the museum. While I personally love visiting museums, they are not always accessible to the public. Some do not have the financial means to visit the museum, others do not even know such places exist in their communities! Assuming I have all the resources I need at my disposal, I would like to create an exhibit that is accessible both physically and visually — just like tattoos themselves.
One part of the exhibit will be held at the museum, where there would be photographs, collected flash designs, books, old and new tattoo guns — all the obligatory dusty (but still fascinating) tattoo artifacts. However, like at the Oakland Museum of California, I would like to organize each era of tattoo history accordingly. One room would be dedicated to the Costanoan rituals of tattooing, what they used, and the types of rites of passage that their tattoos celebrated. Another room would focus on the population booms of the mid-nineteenth century, the wartime efforts, and all the different types of people that came here to the Bay Area, as well as what tattoo styles were popular at that time. There would be a room for each era, in a different theme, serving as historical context to the evolution of tattoos and tattoo history. These “sub-exhibits” would be not just a visual experience, but an audio experience as well, with music and interviews and newscasts available for listening. At the end, visitors can enter a booth with a video camera and microphone and answer basic questions, such as “What was your first tattoo and why did you get it?” and “What do tattoos mean to you?” Visitors could also of course leave their impressions and feedback to benefit the exhibit in the long run. But that is not the whole exhibit!
Five years ago, the Asian Art Museum had an exhibit on traditional Japanese tattooing — both the style and the traditional, non-electric form for injecting ink into the skin, called tebori. The exhibit featured local tattoo artists as well as noteworthy and revered tattoo artists from Japan. There were live models displaying full Japanese-style body-suits, with more tattoo artists tattooing on the spot. I appreciate how the Asian Art Museum has brought not just the art of tattooing but also its process to the public eye; one no longer has to receive a tattoo (or accompany someone receiving a tattoo) in order to observe its painstaking, intricate, bloody, and intimate process.
However, as I mentioned earlier, even a museum can only attract so many visitors. Rather than holding the exhibit solely in the museum, I would like part of the exhibit to be a guided walking/bus tour of various tattoo studios in San Francisco. The bus — an open-top, so that visitors can enjoy the sounds, sights, and smells of The City by the Bay — would deliver visitors to studios such as:
- Tattoo City in North Beach, not just for its historical importance, but also Doug Hardy’s and Mary Joy’s modern take on traditional Americana tattooing, and Kahlil Rintye’s grandiose Japanese-style body-suits.
- Everlasting Tattoo in Alamo Square, for the larger-scale versions of traditional pieces like the one your grandfather got during the war.
- Idle Hand in the Lower Haight District, for beautiful black-and-grey portraits by Holly Ellis, the currently-on-trend black-and-grey dotwork by Erik Jacobsen, or a traditional rosy-cheeked gypsy by Jason Donahue.
- 2Spirit Tattoo in SoMa, for amazing blackwork by Roxx, who pays homage to the styles, symmetry, and aesthetic harmony of the tribal tattoo masters of Polynesia and Southeast Asia.
- Seventh Son Tattoo in SoMa, for their mastery in each and every style of tattooing imaginable.
- Skull & Sword in the Mission District, for Grime’s and Henry Lewis’ modern- and street-art approaches to tattooing.
Passersby are free to jump on the bus and join in on the tour if they please. There would be guided walking tours associated with each of these neighborhoods. Guests are of course free to visit the tattoo shops and watch these masters at work, but part of the tour also consists of exploring the neighborhood and getting a feel for this one microcosm of San Francisco. It would connect the artists and their art with the surrounding environment, as one tends to inspire the other and vice versa. The individual and the community is a symbiotic relationship, and art is one of the many creations borne of that relationship. As a result, tattoos gather some influence from what their bearers find inspirational, which of course varies from person to person, city to city. However, as author Joshua Mohr explains, “there’s one commonality among those with tattoos: At the time we sat in the shop—the needle buzzing, music blaring, the artist wiping blood from our skin—whatever we were having engraved was important. It needed to be documented, commemorated; we felt driven to share it with total strangers. It might have ultimately been of fleeting importance, but right then, it carried significant weight.”
Ultimately, art should be accessible to the public, for its value is not measured in dollars, but how many lives it can touch. Furthermore, my purpose in exploring local tattoo history is to implore my readers to look at tattooing as an art, and art as a local history. History does not just come in the form of musty textbooks and old film reels; observing art gives clues and meaning to the historical context in which it takes place. Thinking about and setting out to discover that individual publicly-displayed artwork’s place in history — whether it is a tattoo on someone’s arm, graffiti on the side of an abandoned train station, or a painting in a non-descript coffee shop — and why it came to be, opens the doors for that curious onlooker to pursue local historical research and gain an understanding of the community around him.
 Doug Hardy. Interview by author. Digital recording. San Francisco, CA., May 18, 2013.
 Thomas Albright. Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980: An Illustrated History. (University of California Press: 1985): 169.
 See note 1 above.
 See note 1 above.
 “Japanese Tattoo.” Asian Art Museum. Accessed May 30, 2013. http://education.asianart.org/explore-resources/video/japanese-tattoo
 Joshua Mohr. “The Illustrated Man: On SF’s Tattoo Culture.” 7×7. June 7, 2010.
Albright, Thomas. Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980: An Illustrated History. (University of California Press: 1985): 169.
“C.W. Eldridge.” Tattoo Archive, accessed April 23, 2013.
Eldridge, C.W. “San Francisco.” Tattoo Archive, accessed April 23, 2013.
Gatewood, Charles. “Tattoo San Francisco.” Tattoo Road Trip, (2010), accessed May 14, 2013.
Hardy, Doug. Interview by Maria Morales. Digital recording. San Francisco, CA., May 18, 2013.
“Japanese Tattoo.” Asian Art Museum. Accessed May 30, 2013. http://education.asianart.org/explore-resources/video/japanese-tattoo
Krutak, Lars. “Marks of Transformation: Tribal Tattooing in California and the American Southwest,” last modified 2010. The Vanishing Tattoo, accessed May 7, 2013.
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