The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo offers exciting glimpses into the life of tattooer Gus Wagner, from the transition he made from working as a sea merchant, to becoming a tattoo artist, to the larger contributions he made to this American subculture. The exhibition, which is curated by guest curator Alan Govenar and the South Street Seaport Museum’s Collections Manager Martina Caruso, and Collections Assistant, Michelle Kennedy, is currently on view at the South Street Seaport Museum and highlights the Alan Govenar and Kaleta Doolin Tattoo Collection, which has been part of the South Street Seaport Museum permanent collection since 2001.
The show offers a rare look into the artist’s life through his 500-page scrapbook, which has photographs, sketches, postcards, press clippings, and more. The exhibition also includes more than 50 tattoo flash sheets (pre-made tattoo designs), on view as reproduction and video documentation, as well as hand-carved tattoo instruments, and two albums of photographs. The museum collaborated with Daredevil Tattoo and with the New York Historical Society on some historical research. Additionally, for the opening reception, Dardevil Tattoo founders Michelle Myles and Brad Fink gave live tattoo demonstrations, and the Historical Society loaned two of Wagner’s flash sheets from their own exhibition on tattooing.
Wagner was born in 1872, in Marietta, OH. When Wagner was twelve years old, he was first exposed to a heavily tattooed man in the traveling show, “Captain Costentenus the Greek Albanian,” which left a lasting impression on him. Wagner would eventually find himself traveling as well, working as a salesman and laborer. In 1897, Wagner left the US aboard the Bellona, a cargo steamer ship, and from that point, Wagner would spend the next four years traveling across the globe as a merchant seaman.
Seeing for himself the way that cultures around the globe approached tattooing by hand affected the way that Wagner’s own tattooing style developed, and he eventually brought back this knowledge to the US. As curator Martina Caruso said to me, “He learned hand tattooing from natives and artists in Borneo, Java, Australia, Japan, and Europe.”
Upon his reentry into the US, Wagner was eager to show off what he had learned, and set up shop as a tattooer. During this time Wagner also worked as a professional tattooed man within the circus and sideshow circuit referring to himself as “the most artistically marked up man in America.” Wagner was indeed heavily tattooed himself, and is reported in the exhibition materials to have had “264 tattoos by 1901 and over 800 by 1908.” The number of his tattoos only added to his legitimacy as a professional tattoo artist.
Wagner would go onto have a four-decade career until his death in 1941. According to the information gathered in the press release, and many practitioners within the tattoo world, Wagner is recognized as one of America’s greatest tattooers.
While the exhibition does take on Wagner’s life in fascinating ways by showing it through memorabilia and his personal items, it does fall a bit flat. While it delves into biographical details of Wagner’s life, there is not much information given about his wife, Maud Wagner. Maud and Gus both met while working within the sideshow circuit, with Gus working as a tattooed man and Maud as a contortionist. Maud would also go on to become America’s first female, mainstream tattooer, and they did work together for sometime. While the first family of ink would leave their lasting mark on American tattoo culture, the show does not give props to Maud’s contributions to the field. And while the show is focused on Gus himself, it could have done more to illustrate Maud’s accomplishments.
This is a typical problem with the portrayal of women within the tattoo world: they are overlooked. This attitude has furthered a gender gap within the current industry in terms of visibility and notoriety, despite many women gaining commercial success, and despite the contributions they have made historically to the development of the art form. This is evident upon researching the history of tattooing, which has virtually written women out of the main narratives.
This exhibit also highlights the recent trend in the art world of showing tattoo related art across the US. In 2016, the exhibition Tattoo opened at the Field Museum in Chicago in November, however a version of this show was first on view in 2015 at the Museé du Quai Branly in Paris, France. Tattoo (both in Chicago and France) offers a more global take on tattooing and even featured various tattoo artists doing live demos. Due to its popularity, the Chicago show was extended from its original closing date in April, until September of this year. The New York Historical Society recently had its own exhibition, Tattooed New York, which chronicled the contributions the state of New York has made to the craft of tattooing.
These exhibitions seem to be making a concerted effort to educate the public on tattooing practices within the US and beyond; these shows also parse out the links between this subculture, art, sailing, and the craft behind creating tattoos.
“I’m hoping this exhibition will raise awareness to a broad audience about the rich visual art history of tattoo art, and that the public comes away with a sense of how much tattoo culture is connected to sailor culture, and how they have grown together, and apart, in the American imagination,” Caruso added in our conversation. As tattoos continue to grow in popularity, it is shows such as The Original Gus Wagner, that help give audiences a better sense of the history behind this vast social practice.
Editor’s Note: It was brought to our attention that some details of the exhibition and the nature of its curation were reported in error. These sections have been corrected.
The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo continues at the South Street Seaport Museum until June 4.