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Exhibition at South Street Seaport Museum focuses on the maritime roots of the modern tattoo
Augustus “Gus” Wagner (American, 1872-1941), Pages from “Souvenirs of the Travels and Experiences of the Original Gus Wagner Globe Trotter & Tattoo Artist” scrapbook, ca. 1897-1941. Leather, paper, photographic print, ink, thread. The Alan Govenar and Kaleta Doolin Tattoo Collection.


NEW YORK, NY.- The South Street Seaport Museum announces its new exhibition, The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo.

The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo explores Augustus "Gus" Wagner's (American, 1872-1941) early life as a merchant mariner and tattoo artist who traveled the world, from 1898-1902, and his return to the United States as a professional tattooist and tattooed man.

Gus Wagner was born in 1872 in Marietta, Ohio, a trading and boat building town on the Ohio River. At age twelve he saw his first heavily tattooed man, "Captain Costentenus the Greek Albanian," in a traveling show. As a young man he hit the road as an itinerant salesman and laborer. In 1897 he boarded the cargo steamer Bellona at Newport News, Virginia, thus embarking on a four-year career as a merchant seaman. By traveling around the world, Gus Wagner got to know many seaports: Vera Cruz, London, Cape Town, Sydney, Auckland, Honolulu, New York, San Francisco, and others. It was during this time that he discovered the art of tattooing. He claimed that he learned to tattoo from tribesmen in Java and Borneo who showed him how to use traditional hand-made tools. By 1901, Gus reportedly had 264 tattoos of his own, (and over 800 by 1908) allowing him to promote himself as "the most artistically marked up man in America." After briefly moving home to Ohio, Gus embarked on a forty-year career as a traveling tattooist, tattooed man, and circus performer. He largely eschewed the new electric tattooing machines that transformed the art form after 1890, and remained faithful to his hand-held instruments. With other wandering artists, he carried tattooing inland from coastal ports, making it part of the culture of small-town America in the 20th century.

The exhibition shows original and reproduced artifacts from the Seaport Museum's Alan Govenar and Kaleta Doolin Tattoo Collection such as tattooing tools, a selection of tattoo flashes (drawings and sketches, on recycled paper based materials, displaying variations of tattoo designs) and a selection of pages from the artist's scrapbook - a 400 page book composed of press clippings, postcards, business cards, sketches, and photographs, that relate to his introduction to tattooing as a sailor.

Due to the fragile condition of the collection, most of the artifacts are being shown via reproductions. A video shows the turning of the pages of Gus Wagner's various canvas books, like Gus's clients were doing nearly a century ago.

The exhibition familiarizes viewers with hand tattoo techniques, and make the case for the importance of researching, documenting, and preserving tattoo collections in museums and research institutes.

Lectures and all-ages public programs will take place throughout the length of the exhibition in collaboration with Daredevil Tattoo Museum and Tattly.

The exhibition is curated by Alan Govenar, with Martina Caruso, Collections Manager and Registrar, and Michelle Kennedy, Collections Assistant at the Seaport Museum. The design and art direction is curated by Rob Wilson and Christine Picone of Bowne Printers, the Museum's historic print shop.






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