New Yorkers, who live in a world shaped by advertising, are suckers for self-transformation. In a choice between changing the body and changing the mind, changing the body is easier. And the easiest feature to change is skin, a blank canvas just waiting to be colored, stained or drawn on. That’s what we see happening repeatedly, imaginatively and pretty much permanently in “Tattooed New York,” a tightly packed survey of epidermal art opening on Friday at the New-York Historical Society.
Tattooing is a global phenomenon, and an old one. It’s found on pre-Dynastic Egyptian mummies and on living bodies in Africa, Asia and the Americas throughout the centuries. Europeans caught on to it, in a big way, during the Age of Exploration. (The word “tattoo” has origins in Polynesia; Capt. James Cook is often credited with introducing it to the West.)
What’s the longtime allure of a cosmetic modification that, even after the invention of modern tools, can hurt like hell to acquire? In some cultures, tattoos are considered healing or protective. In others, they’re marks of social affiliation, certificates of adulthood. Like Facebook pages, they can be public statements of personal interests, political or amorous. They can function as professional calling cards — sample displays — for tattooists promoting their skills.