We frequently consider visible artwork—notably, the kind of artwork one sees in museums—as extrinsic to ourselves. Whether or not painted on canvas or a ceramic floor, wooden or metallic, artwork involves us as a static object, meant to be noticed and contemplated from far. The notion that artwork might be part of one’s personal physique, shifting together with our pores and skin and muscle, peeking from beneath a sleeve or a shirt flap appears overseas to the very notion we have now of visible artwork. And that is just one of many explanation why tattoos aren’t typically regarded as an artwork type, however at greatest a everlasting, semiprivate accent.
But the query of tattoo artistry—its aesthetic, religious, and historic energy—is at the coronary heart of the exhibit Lew the Jew and His Circle: The Origins of American Tattoo, now displaying at the Modern Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
‘Lew the Jew’ Alberts in entrance of certainly one of Charlie Wagner’s Bowery tattoo parlors, photographer unknown, circa 1917. (Photograph courtesy Tattoo Archive)
The exhibit tells the reconstructed story of Albert Morton Kurzman, aka “Lew the Jew” Alberts, a profoundly influential determine in the world of American tattooing. Born in New York in 1880 and lively in the first half of the 20th century, Lew created a collection of iconic all-American designs, which have been later replicated by quite a few different tattooers all throughout the nation. Having discovered the artwork of tattooing whereas stationed in the Philippines throughout his military service in the Spanish-American Struggle, Alberts crafted and patterned an electrical machine, which sped up and thus radically reworked the strategy of tattooing. Whereas considerably up to date, the primary design continues to be in use in quite a few outlets. Alberts studied wallpaper design and engineering at the Hebrew Technical Institute, a Decrease East Aspect vocational faculty for impoverished Jewish immigrant youths, and so was capable of mix his technical and inventive information to create his gadget. Given conventional Judaism’s aversion to physique artwork, there’s greater than a measure of cosmic irony in the reality that a groundbreaking tattoo machine was invented by a graduate of a Jewish vocational faculty. This irony is probably combined with some chutzpah, too, provided that Alberts wore his id on his sleeve, incorporating it right into a catchy, considerably brash moniker: Lew the Jew.
For numerous many years following a hepatitis B scare, up till 1997, tattooing was unlawful in New York Metropolis. For hundreds of years, in the United States and Europe it was related to the underworld and all issues unique and forbidden—the end result, possible, of Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you.” Maybe for that cause, not an entire lot had been recognized about Alberts. In any case, the underworld’s accoutrements don’t get preserved in the comfortable college archives—they’re disposed of by the police. And so far as underground characters go, regardless of how infamous or productive, their tales get handed down in oral histories relatively than via well-documented educational data.
‘Lew the Jew’ Alberts, tattoo flash, circa 1950–53. Pencil on paper. (Photograph courtesy Don Ed Hardy)
The story of Alberts acquired mainstream consideration in 2015, when Don Ed Hardy, a legendary modern tattoo artist and designer, edited and revealed Lew the Jew Alberts: Early 20th Century Tattoo Drawings, a e-book that served as the inspiration for the present exhibit. Most of the gadgets on show at the Modern Jewish Museum got here from Hardy, as nicely.
When Hardy and I met at the exhibit, the artist recounted how thrilled he was when he acquired an archive that contained Albert’s belongings: “I knew about Lew from when I first decided to become a professional tattooer in the mid-1960s. There had been a book published—the only book published in English—about tattooing in America. It was done in the 1930s and they talked about him in there. So I knew who he was.”
As we walked, taking a look at the partitions lined with sketches, correspondence, and pictures, Lew’s world introduced itself to us. 100 years in the past, Hardy defined, when a buyer would stroll into a store, she or he can be introduced with a menu-like set of designs to select from. Alberts authored numerous new “flash” drawings—the gadgets others would placed on their menu. A few of these originated in Japanese mythology, and lots of have been new, catering particularly to American sensibilities: the flag, the bald eagle, and quite a few exaggerated cartoon characters. The exhibited correspondence signifies in depth ties Alberts developed with tattooers on the West Coast, with whom he swapped designs and methods. It was clearly a tightly knit, secretive group, as Hardy advised me: “By the mid-20th century there were maybe 500 tattooers in the whole U.S. And now there are 5,000 in L.A. It’s blown up beyond what any of us ever dreamed of.”
Unknown, Backpiece by ‘Lew the Jew’ Alberts on San Francisco tattooer C.J. ‘Pop’ Eddy’s promotional flyer, circa 1920. (Photograph courtesy Don Ed Hardy)
Reflecting on the historical past of tattooing, Hardy mused: “It’s been seen as an art in a lot of societies going back further than we know. Egyptian mummies had tattoos. I think it’s the oldest form of pictorial expression, probably from before people were painting on caves. In the West, only about 50 years ago it came to be explored as an expressive medium.” And most definitely, it had not been seen as an artwork type. Hardy himself, nevertheless, attended San Francisco Artwork Institute as a print main. As an alternative of going to Yale, the place he was provided a graduate-school fellowship, he sought out Samuel Steward, aka Phil Sparrow—a author and tattoo artist, who, for a few years was a member of Gertrude Stein’s and Alice Toklas’ circle. Strolling into Steward’s store was a turning level: “It was set up as an art gallery.”
As society began to vary, the clientele and its angle towards tattooing began to shift, as nicely. “A lot of tattoos, I think, are amuletic for people,” stated Hardy, “whether they’re acknowledged or intended as such, but it’s like psychic armor. … Like, this tiger is going to protect me.” The tattooed physique is, in a method, an area the place fable is not an abstraction that resides in a single’s thoughts, however is enacted, day by day, in the script of 1’s bodily actions. Wouldn’t it be a stretch to say that for Alberts, an immigrant from the Decrease East Aspect, tattooing objects of American symbolism was by some means amuletic, as properly? That it signified a want for allegiance and belonging, safety, and hope?
‘Lew the Jew’ Alberts, tattoo flash, circa 1950–53. Pencil on paper. (Photograph courtesy Don Ed Hardy)
Mythology and philosophy are essential dimensions of physique artwork for quite a lot of modern tattooers. One in every of them is Jill Bonny, a New York-born Jewish artist, whose store Studio Kazoku is nestled a couple of blocks away from the fundamental drag of the Haight neighborhood of San Francisco. Like Don Ed Hardy, Bonny is an artist with educational credentials: She graduated from a prestigious program at Cooper Union and considers her time in apprenticeship in Japan to be central to her aesthetics. Whereas in Japan, she understood that as a way to achieve success, a tattooer must be each a craftsman and an artist. And that, she identified, is exactly what she discovered most enjoyable about the Lew the Jew exhibit: the inventive aspiration and meticulous craft, given expression in a style, thought-about lowbrow inside the society that engendered it. Equally fascinating to Bonny was the exhibit’s concentrate on the historical past of photographs and craft secrets and techniques that have been handed down from one grasp to a different, and are in use, nonetheless, by numerous individuals in her group.
Bonny related to Alberts’ id as nicely, regardless that Jewishness “wasn’t part of his visual vocabulary, wasn’t part of the identity of what he was painting and tattooing. But,” she added, “I don’t think identity has to be that simple. I’m interested in feeling connected to him because he took his education so seriously and applied it to his craft.”
Group inside Charlie Wagner’s tattoo store in the Bowery, photographer unknown, circa 1910. (Photograph courtesy Don Ed Hardy)
For Bonny, a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Jewish tattooing is a fraught topic, and one she considered an incredible deal. Some Jews affiliate tattoos with focus camp numbers, she acknowledged. In her perspective, nevertheless, “the application of those tattoos was impersonal, thoughtless, inartistic, and it is hard for me to look at it, and use the word ‘tattoo’ because of how much that word means to me. When I see those types of marks on someone, to me that relates more to branding an animal. It is not a chosen identity. That’s not my identity as a tattooed Jew. My identity is someone looking for superior art.”
Reflecting on the incontrovertible fact that some second-generation Holocaust survivors are selecting to tattoo their grandparents’ numbers on them, Bonny stated: “Tattoo is a very tangible way of dealing with deep emotions.” Her personal father, she advised me, a toddler of Holocaust survivors, carries tattoos of his mother and father’ numbers in addition to barbed wire. “People love getting family stories tattooed on them,” she added.
Very similar to Bonny, “Lew the Jew” Alberts was probably additionally on the lookout for actual artwork. Given his socio-economic milieu, excessive artwork was not in the playing cards for him. As he carved out his personal area of interest, nevertheless, Alberts contributed to an genuine American folk-art custom, and its secretive, underground American mythology, which continues to thrive, and carry his legacy.
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