Exploring an illustrated history of tattoos at Philly museum

The inaugural show at the Independence Seaport Museum’s Community Gallery features art by pioneers of American sailor tattoos and the contemporary artists inspired by them. Send us photos of your tattoos!

Tattoos only last as long as the skin they are drawn on.

But flash art — those watercolor drawings you see on the walls of tattoo shops — can have a longer life.

For the inauguration of the Independence Seaport Museum’s Community Gallery, the Philadelphia nautical museum asked Troy Timpel to curate a show of art by early pioneers of American sailor tattoos, and the contemporary artists inspired by them.

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Skin ink for men who served in the Pacific theater during World War II usually featured cartoonish figures of sparrows, anchors, and, of course, ladies in various cheesecake poses drawn with thick, bold lines.

But that style went out of fashion in favor of more aggressive designs in tribal or photorealistic styles.

“Lot of tattoers don’t even use lines anymore. They just tattoo like they would paint,” said Timpel, a tattoo artist and organizer of this weekend’s Philadelphia Tattoo Convention. “A lot of tattoos with big, thick, solid lines and solid areas of color are going to last and look better 20, 30, 40 years down the road than a lot of these other styles.”

That retro style is coming back into fashion. The work of Sailor Jerry (Norman Keith Collins, 1911-1973) has become a brand for a line of clothing and lifestyle merchandise.

“I tell you what, I think Sailor Jerry is rolling over in his grave 50 million times if he knew there was a pair of socks and some Converse shoes with his f***ing picture on it,” said tattoo artist Mark Walters, aka Permanent Mark. “He would s*** his pants.”

The exhibit also features one of the first electric tattoo machines, circa 1905, patented by legendary artist Charlie Wagner of New York along with original samples of his work.

Contemporary artists update that simplified style with nods to current symbols; one design of a shipwreck features the X-Wing fighter that Luke Skywalker landed on the swamp planet of Dagobah for his Jedi training with Yoda.

For the most part, the artists on display are faithful to the style and content of their predecessors, in both art for the skin and for hanging on a wall.

“Tattooers painting this stuff have to know their history,” said Walters, who has his own reality show on Spike TV. “If they see a koi fish and they do a koi fish, they don’t know what the hell that means. For me, you have to know a basic history to put your artwork into perspective.”

“Past and Present” will be on display until May.

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