This Museum Gives You the Long, Curious History of Tattoos
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you should see what the first electric pen looks like.
At first glance, Daredevil Tattoo on Manhattan’s Lower East Side looks like a typical studio: A heavily inked shop owner sits behind a counter; the walls are lined with iconic, sailor-inspired designs. The faint sound of buzzing drifts from the back room. And while you can get a tattoo here, it’s also a museum — the city’s premier source of historical reference on an industry largely banished, until only recently, to the margins of society.
The counter I’m leaning against is actually a display case packed with archaic-looking tattoo machines, including a copy of what’s considered to be the very first: an electric pen designed by Thomas Edison. And as co-owner Michelle Myles casts her arm toward the wall of designs, she sweeps across a century of tattoo history — much of it written right here in New York City — in the form of rare, original work by the craft’s leading luminaries. Legends like Bert Grimm and Charlie Wagner came long before Miami Ink introduced tattoos to the masses, and their work adorns Daredevil’s walls as a testament to the profession’s rich, yet unfortunately disreputable, roots.
On display are photographs of the masters themselves, as well as original sketches — known as “flash” — featuring all the thematic cornerstones of traditional tattooing: growling black panthers, clipper ships crashing through waves, eagles tangled in fierce battle with snakes and, of course, sultry women in suggestive poses. Many of the designs have long since yellowed, their once-vibrant colors dulled by the tides of time. Tattoo fanatics, history buffs and ordinary visitors alike would be hard-pressed not to stare in wonder.
Like in any other museum, most of the pieces sit in carefully crafted cases, behind museum-grade glass and in a climate-controlled environment. These days, says Myles, who also leads local tattoo-history tours, Daredevil’s displays attract visitors from all over the world. “We really wanted to create a global resource for people,” she says, referring to co-owner Brad Fink, “and we thought that if there’s any place that should have a tattoo museum, it’s New York City.”
That’s because a key part of tattoo history took shape in and around this very neighborhood. It was here that Sam O’Reilly, a Connecticut native born to Irish immigrants, patented the first tattoo machine in 1891, based largely on Edison’s design. By the time tattooing in New York City was finally legalized in 1997 — the same year Daredevil opened its doors — local artists had helped develop a timeless and instantly recognizable style, now called American traditional, that’s seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years.
The museum offers more than a history lesson though. Myles says clients often come in and pick classic designs right off the wall. “It’s really cool that this stuff lives on how it’s intended to,” she says. So next time you’re in lower Manhattan, consider rolling up your sleeves and snatching your very own piece of tattoo history.
The Daredevil Tattoo Museum is open daily from noon to 10 p.m.