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Tattooing Was Banned In NYC For Nearly 40 Years

The "Tattooed New York" exhibit is opening at the New-York Historical Society on February 3rd, and while it will examine three centuries of tattooing in New York, we're going to zero in on one odd era here: that time when tattoo artists were outlawed in NYC. It wasn't even that long ago—the ban came down in 1961 and lasted until 1997.

A couple of years ago I discussed the ban with Ed Hardy, the grandfather of modern tattooing—he set up shop in a Washington Square Park apartment for a couple of weeks during the ban. He told me that "there were only a few tattooers" in the entire city at the time, so no one was really doing it, and he only did a few while here. The city blamed the ban on a hepatitis B outbreak, declaring it “unlawful for any person to tattoo a human being," but there may have been a different reason for the ban.

Curator of the NYHS exhibit, Cristian Petru Panaite, told me:

What I personally found fascinating about the ban years are the stories about illegal tattoo studios operating out of private apartments, which were perceived as sacred safe spaces for creating art. New Yorkers from all walks of life—including cops, businessmen, even rival biker gang members—would meet and interact with one another within the confines of these studios, and everyone would have to follow strict rules set by the artists.

Though the city cited the Hepatitis outbreak as the official reason for the 1961 tattoo ban, members of the public recall other motivations for the ban, including the mayor’s desire to clean up the city in preparation for the 1964 World’s Fair, a city health inspector’s personal vendetta against one of the Bowery tattooers, and even a scare regarding contaminated shell fish. The ban did not stop New Yorkers from getting tattoos, nor did it stop artists from tattooing others. While some tattoo artists left the city, relocating to nearby Mount Vernon and Long Island, others fully adapted to the adversity by opening shops in their NYC apartments.

It's possible this even created a distinct style for the NYC set; Panaite says, "By the 1970s there was definitely a clear break between the traditional style of New York tattoos and the 'new visions,' or what Ed Hardy called 'new tribalism.' At the time, a number of academically trained visual artists began to pursue tattooing as a viable way of making a living, bringing a fresh aesthetic and taste to the art form and often finding inspiration in tattoo traditions from Japan, Polynesia, and other places internationally."

The ban will be covered at the exhibit, where you'll also be able to learn about other trends and taboos in the practice over the years. There will be "more than 250 objects dating from the early 1700s to today, and hstorical highlights will include Native American body art, tattoo craft practiced by visiting sailors, sideshow culture, the 1961 ban that drove tattooing underground for three decades, and the post-ban artistic renaissance." There will also be live tattoo demonstrations by artists from the five boroughs.

The exhibit opens Friday, February 3rd at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, at 77th), and runs through April 3rd; more info here.

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