When she learned she’d be guest curator of East End Seaport Museum’s latest display, Arden Scott knew she wanted to do something a little different.
It needed to be catchy, she thought. It needed to be interactive. It needed to be … tattoos.
As part of the show, local artists, including Ms. Scott, Laura Lomuscio, Rena Wilhelm and Megan Barron, joined forces with Tattoo Lou’s, a tattoo parlor with several Long Island branches, to help decorate mannequins with old maritime tattoos, such as nautical stars, ships’ wheels and mermaids.
Scott McIntire’s tattooed headless wooden statues stand waiting for patrons to put their own heads in the space above the bodies and become inked-up versions of themselves.
“I get bored in museums that strictly have things hung on walls,” said Ms. Scott, whose husband, Keith McCamy, serves on the museum board.
The exhibit explains tattooing’s roots, which date back 5,000 years. Tattooing was brought back to Britain from Tahiti by mariner Captain James Cook in the 18th century and was later adopted by sailors in the Royal Navy. Tattoos soon became the telltale sign of sailors worldwide.
One of the most identifiable tattoo artists is “Sailor Jerry” Collins, who tattooed between 1911 and 1973. His style is marked by thick black outlines and often depicts boat anchors or busty babes.
“Everyone knows about Sailor Jerry and all that, so I wanted to go beyond that history into contemporary tattoos,” said Ms. Scott.
And so the exhibit covers classical tattoo art and expands into contemporary manifestations. The walls are plastered with photos of local residents’ tattoos and the stories behind them.
“The stories behind the tattoos are the best part of the show,” said Mr. McCamy, who helped his wife set up the exhibit. “The tattoos are great, but the stories are really special.”
On one placard, Southold resident Crystal Keller shows off her ocean-themed tattoo sleeve, a contemporary evolution of the tattoo in which tattoos join together without space between them. Tattooed sailors often had freestanding tattoos, isolated by surrounding flesh, but Ms. Keller’s tattoos combine to create one large aquatic scene. Each inked item within that scene holds different significance for Ms. Keller.
“My tattoos are commemorative, one is for a lost loved one, the others relate to parts of my life,” Ms. Keller wrote in her tattoo testimonial. “Some are about new beginnings: fish are always moving. Koi are for perseverance. Flowers are about love and beauty after initial darkness. Some people go jump off a cliff — I get a tattoo.”
Even Greenport Mayor David Nyce has an entry in the show, a photo of his tattoo, a hand holding a heart, inked on his left shoulder blade, directly behind his heart.
“I got my first tattoo in 1991, when tattooing was illegal in New York [City],” Mayor Nyce wrote. “Like Prohibition, you had to know someone who knew someone, personally, not name-dropping, to get an appointment. Through friends, I found Darren of Rising Dragon to do the image I wanted. Any fears I or my wife, Jen, had were relieved when he told us he tattooed most of the cops in the local precinct.”
Reverend Thomas LaMothe of First Baptist Church of Greenport has a biceps tattoo of a rose, a tribute to his grandfather, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War I. One photograph showed off his tattoo along with his two grandchildren sporting temporary tattoos of their own.
“One evening last summer my grandsons, then 3 and 5, sat down at the dinner table and proudly showed me their new temporary tattoos,” he said. “It took me a few minutes to realize that they were, quite consciously, imitating me.”
The East End Seaport Museum & Maritime Foundation’s exhibition, “Tattoo: Art of the Sailor” will be on display until October 8.