New Museum in New Orleans Covers the History of Tattoo Art

Though tattoos may be thought of as a contemporary phenomenon, they have actually been around for centuries, and a recently-opened museum in New Orleans is out to prove it.

Gambit reports that the New Orleans Tattoo Museum and Studio celebrated its grand opening on Saturday, March 21. Museum founders “Doc” Don Lucas and Adam Montegut have decades’ worth of collections of tattoo memorabilia, including old advertisements, photos, and equipment. A 40 year veteran of the tattoo industry, Lucas, 60, has spend a better part of his life immersed in tattoos and their history — a history, he says, that is mostly “undocumented.”

“You go to these old-timers and learn from them, because there was no school or learning text,” Lucas said. “My other passion was the history, to document as much of the history I’ve been blessed to have given to me or bought. Now I’m the old-timer.”

“Until the last five years or so an aspiring tattoo artist would not have had the option of attending a school, but would have had to knock on doors and hope for an apprenticeship from an artist in a shop,” says Christina Seeber, Marketing Manager, Academy of Responsible Tattooing. “Our Academy grew out of a need, there were so many people knocking on our founder, Guy Prandstatter’s shop door that he felt compelled to train more than one artist at a time. Using the traditional apprenticeship as a model, he developed a curriculum for serious, motivated future tattoo artists.”

The grand opening included lectures from tattoo artists in New Orleans and across the country. In addition to the various historical items on display, the museum had a fully-functional tattoo studio.

New Orleans, as it happens, was a pioneering hub for tattoo artists in the late-19th and early-20th century. The age of modern tattooing is said to have begun in 1891 with the invention of the very first electric tattooing machine by Samuel O’Reilly, who allegedly based his design on Thomas Edison’s printing pen. Lucas believes that by the turn of the 20th century there were about 150 tattoo artists in the United States, nearly all of them itinerant.

The first tattoo studio in New Orleans was opened in the 1920s by George Pinell, who in his advertisements was known as “Prof. Geo. Pinell.” “The Professor,” as he was referred to, was a New Orleans fixture, tattooing thousands of denizens well through the 1950s. He even open another shop in 1955, which was so tiny, apparently, that a customer could sit with one leg outside the shop and the other leg inside and still occupy most of the studio.

Pinell, like most tattoo artists at the time according to Lucas, did not care about sterilization. Tattoo artists would let a bucket of water needed for tattooing sit for weeks before changing and would only add one drop of Listerine, alcohol, or camphor into their pigments. Needles, needless to say, were rarely changed.

Lucas said the challenge with documenting the history of tattoo art is that many tattoo pioneers rarely stayed put. In the early 1900s, tattoo artists often traveled from city to city, only occasionally leaving documentation that proved they were there.

“There were so many odd-job guys who passed through and were just never known,” Lucas said. “They’re hard to pin down and find anything about them. Some people on their cards advertised they worked here, and Portsmouth and Guam and Hawaii.”

Lucas can be considered a tattoo historian in his own right, spending his 40 year career as a tattoo artist collecting historical artifacts from around the country (and the world). He says it has always been his ambition to open this kind of museum.

“This had been my wish for a long time, to have a museum and just tattoo part-time,” he said. “My wish came true because of Adam, who put this place together. We talked about it a little bit and hooked up to make a world-class museum out of it and put world-class art out of it. I prayed for that for years, and it came true.”

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