Tattoos And The American Sailor: Exhibit At Mystic Seaport Opens
Chronicling The History Of Seamen's Body Art
By JESSE LEAVENWORTH, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
10:21 a.m. EDT, March 20, 2011
MYSTIC— — For love of country, for brotherhood, family and fear of the ocean's lasting embrace, American sailors have marked their bodies for more than two centuries.
A new exhibit at Mystic Seaport — "Skin & Bones: Tattoos in the Life of the American Sailor" — chronicles the history of indelible body art among the nation's working and fighting seamen. Displays include paintings, photographs and artifacts, including evil-looking needles that early tattooists used on their shipmates. There's also an interactive Tattoo-A-Tron, which uses video projection to etch an ephemeral and painless image on a patron's hand or forearm.
The decorated sailor's strong arms and labor-tightened torso are shown throughout the exhibit at the museum's Mallory Gallery. There are large illustrations of hard-bodied U.S. Navy men who left records of their tattoos in federal certificates intended to provide proof of American sailors' identities and therefore guard against impressment, or forced service, in the British navy. Aaron Fullerton's 1797 certificate, for example, lists a ship tattoo on his right hand and his initials and year of birth  on his left.
Beyond its historical lens, the exhibit is meant to explain the sailor's reasons for permanent badging, particularly the bonds that body art promoted in a seafaring, often impolite, society.
American sailors picked up tattooing from their British counterparts, who learned about tattoos over centuries, beginning with the wild Celts and the Picts of what's now northern and eastern Scotland, and expanding to other regions and peoples in the Empire's path, including the Polynesians of the South Pacific.
For all sailors, tattoos were a proud sign of the tight line between shipmates, who shared hard labor, close quarters and life-threatening danger from storm and foe.
"Though landlubbers commonly viewed the tattoo with suspicion, for seafarers it was a sign of belonging and their extended and everlasting family," according to the book that accompanies the exhibit.
Superstitions peculiar to sailors were behind some tattoos. Many had their feet tattooed with pigs and roosters to guard against drowning at sea because those animals often were the only survivors of shipwrecks.
Patriotic tattoos were popular from the beginning. Early in the nation's life, many sailors sported crossed cannons, American flags, bald eagles, Liberty Poles, even depictions of famous sea battles etched across their chests.
It was not a sanitary process. The 18th and early 19th century tattoos often were made with a large needle, such as those used for sewing sails. The design was then rubbed with a mixture of gunpowder and urine. The electric tattooing needle debuted in 1891, making the process more efficient and helping to expand body art to on-shore parlors. The exhibit includes some of the earliest known American "flash," or tattoo design, books.
The flash books and other displays show the sailor's long love affair with the naked or lightly clad woman. These drawn ladies often have exaggerated assets. But the exhibit also details the U.S. Navy's 1908 order that forced recruits to cover their hide-bound hussies before entering service. Tattoo artists did a brisk business inking cover-up clothing on such tattoos through World War II.
The connection between tattoos and the erotic is evident in the exhibit. In fact, said Jonathan Shay, director of exhibits and interpretation at Mystic Seaport, some of the displayed photos come from the famous Kinsey Institute.
"This exhibit is a little edgier than what Mystic Seaport usually does," he said.
But the images are mostly "PG," and Shay said the museum hopes to attract a new demographic. He noted that the Naval Submarine Base in Groton has kept the tradition of tattooed sailors alive in the region. The exhibit also includes modern body art from shops in southeastern Connecticut.
"Skin & Bones" is borrowed from the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. Mystic Seaport has lent that museum three exhibits, and such cross-trading in historical displays makes sense in the tight economy, Shay said.
The exhibit runs through Sept. 5. For more information, visit http://www.mysticseaport.org