My friend Kristen got married a few weeks ago at the Strathmore mansion in Bethesda, Maryland. It’s really a beautiful spot that also happens to be a gallery, which is currently running an exhibition called Skin. Among other things, the exhibit recreates an early 20th -century tattoo parlor , which I would have loved to have seen but was closed for the event. But a collection of photographs could still be viewed throughout the mansion during the wedding, and it was this is image of Nora Hildebrandt that made me stop in my tracks:
I’ve always had a special affinity for tattoo art and culture—it’s Jewish guilt and anxiety (see my short story and you’ll see what I mean: http://www.thesquawkback.com/2012/05/by-cheryl-spinner.html), so it’s mighty surprising it never occurred to me that 19th-century Americans would be tattoo’d and photographed. There’s something incredibly interesting about this image and it got me thinking: Why were these photographs made? Who got such tattoos? So I did a little research.
Joseph Oettermann charts the history of Western tattooing, arguing that the nineteenth century witnessed the “renaissance of Western tattooing” with “the true home of the European tattoo” situated in “the fairground and the market” (193). “It was here, he argues, “that bodies were put on display” (193). In this sense, the photographic image provides another medium for display with the reproduction of images (the tattoo work) within an image (the photographic image).
But it was P.T. Barnum, who, as Oettermann posits, made “big business out of a simple piece of skin” by bringing the “tattooed out of the disorganized world of the fairground and into the place they henceforth occupied: the sideshow” (200). W.L Alden even claims that Barnum “invented the tattooed business,” which turned out to be quite lucrative with almost every museum having a “ Tattooed Girl, with a yarn about her being captured by the Indians and tattooed when she was a little girl” (quote from Oetterman). For a time, simply putting your tattoo’d body on display was enough to get the cash rolling in. It often helped if you fabricated some exotic past that often involved being captured by a bunch of natives in the South Seas or in the Wild West and been subject to tattoo torture, when, in actuality, you had been tattoo’d by one of the premier artists of the day, like Hildebrandt or O’Reilly (who just happened to invent the electric tattoo machine).
As the market for tattoo’d spectacles became overrun, simply being tattoo’d just wasn’t enough. You needed even more of a gimmick, which might include sword eating, practicing magic, clairvoyance, or all of the above. In the case of the de Burgh’s, they banked on being a tattoo’d couple; Emma de Burgh even asserted that she tatoo’d herself out of love for her husband (his name appeared on her body in addition to the Last Supper).
You might say the relationship between love, in this case familial, and tattooing was present in Nora Hildebrandt’s case (and now we come full circle, friends). Nora was the daughter of Hildebrandt, an esteemed 19th-century tattoo artist, and she was the first woman to tour the country displaying the art of her father. It’s an interesting thing to think about: I’d presume that Nora must have had a deep connection with her father to offer her body as a canvas. Or maybe she hated him, but was still drawn to tattoo art and imagery. I don’t know enough about her but I’m intrigued, especially intrigued when considering her alongside Emma de Burgh and her love for her man. So maybe it’s fitting that Nora’s image was on display at a wedding, and maybe it’s fitting that my own fascination with tattoos produces this very blog post. I don’t know, but it’s something to think about.