How Native American Tattoos Influenced the Body Art Industry

One of the earliest items in the “Tattooed New York” exhibit are these mezzotints from 1710. They feature portraits of four Mohawk and Mohican leaders. The “Tattooed New York” exhibit has a number of representations of Native American tattoos.

Leeanne Root

NYC exhibit begins and ends with Native American tattoos

An exhibit at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library exploring 300 years of tattooing in New York City begins with Native American tattoos and how the Indigenous Peoples of New York influenced the tattoo industry.

“Native American tattoos are rich in artistry. They also are rich in meaning,” explains a placard labeled “The Power of Tattoos” at the New York Historical Society. “The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and other nations in what is now New York believed tattoos had healing powers, applying them over sore joints or broken bones. Tattoos also were marks of protection, with symbols representing guardian spirits, or Manitous. Because everyone’s life story is unique, their tattoos were unique.”

Among the earliest items featured in the Tattooed New York exhibition are the New-York Historical Society’s Four Indian Kings mezzotints from 1710, which feature portraits of Mohawk and Mohican tribal leaders who traveled to London seeking military aid against the French and their Ojibwe allies.

“Gawkers lined London’s streets. Queen Anne held a reception at St. James’s Palace. Everyone in England, it seemed, wanted to glimpse the three Mohawks and one Mohican popularly known as the ‘Four Indian Kings,’” another section of the historical society’s presentation explains. “To the British, the four chiefs were an exotic curiosity, simultaneously praised and scorned as ‘noble savages.’” The portraits of them are by John Verelst, those and later prints of the paintings are some of the earliest images showing Native American tattoos. Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, who was chief of the Maquas (or Mohawks) is seen in the portrait with black linear patterns covering his chest and lower face.

Courtesy New-York Historical Society Library

Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow was a Maquas (or Mohawk) chief. This mezzotint from 1710 is one of the oldest items on display at the New-York Historical Society. The “Tattooed New York” exhibit has a number of representations of Native American tattoos.

Visitors to the historical society can also see a 1706 pictograph by a Seneca trader that shows his distinctive serpent and bird tattoos, which were his personal signature. According to information presented in the exhibit, after the arrival of Europeans, the Iroquois, often “signed” documents by drawing their unique tattoos. But, as the exhibit information points out, images of early Native Americans and their body art are seen through a European lens. Those images were often “skewed by an eagerness to sensationalize exotic ‘savages’ or embellished to excite readers and increase book sales,” notes a placard at the exhibit.

Early Native American tattoos were created by scratching or pricking the skin with sharpened bones, branches, or needles and then rubbing soot or crushed minerals into the wound. Many Native American tattoos celebrated accomplishments. While warriors’ tattoos were often featured not only on their bodies, but on the weapons they carried.

Another early item on display at the historical society is a mid-18th century Ojibwe ball club. The carvings on this war club include a panther, three fish, a longer zigzag serpent design, and a tally of either engagements or those killed in battle.

Photo by Leeanne Root

This war club is one of the few items exhibited from the 1700s that shows an example of Native American tattoos. The designs on this were likely to have been on its owners body as well.

Not only does Tattooed New York begin with Native American tattoos, it walks visitors through a timeline of body art aficionados—such as sailors and soldiers, society women, and “tattooed ladies”—and it examines how identity is expressed through tattooing today.

The exhibit also follows the evolution of tattoo technology, beginning with the pricking and poking techniques used for early Native American tattoos to machines, like the electric pen created by Thomas Edison in 1876.

Native influences can be seen throughout the exhibit, such as in Ruth Marten’s collection of Marquesan Heads from 1977. She borrowed her imagery from both Western and Polynesian traditions and set up a tattoo studio in her apartment.

Courtesy Ruth Marten/New York Historical Society

Ruth Marten’s collection of Marquesan Heads are on display at “Tattooed New York”. She borrowed her imagery from both Western and Polynesian traditions.

Other Native influences can be seen in Native American tattoos—though getting inked with a stereotypical Indian in a headdress will not win you any fans in Indian country, it continues to be popular, and was shown in the exhibit throughout the years. The Indian in a headdress shows up on a number of flash sheets, which were used by 19th century tattoo artists to speed up the process. Customers could browse through flash sheets of pre-drawn artwork featuring simple designs.

Collection of Ohio Tattoo Museum

This flash sheet from the 1920s shows popular tattoos drawn by Bob Wicks around 1930.

Photo by Leeanne Root

Flash sheets were portfolios of popular tattoos drawn by artists to help meet the increased demand for tattoos. Stereotypical Native American tattoos, like the woman in a headdress were popular and are seen throughout the exhibit.

If tattooing started with the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island, how did the practice of body art get to where it is today? Having a tattoo is becoming more and more mainstream. Approximately 29 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo according to a 2015 Harris Poll, and there are more than 270 tattoo studios across just the five boroughs of New York City.

According to the information provided in the exhibit, Captain James Cook introduced the Tahitian word tautau to England after traveling to the South Pacific in the 1700s, and many Americans discovered tattooing after reading Typee by Herman Melville, in which he describes his 1842 visit to Polynesia.

Tattooed New York begins and ends with some Native American tattoos and artwork. In 2013, the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave, New York featured Indian Ink: Iroquois & The Art of Tattoos, and one of the final pieces shown in the New York City exhibit is a piece by Alex Jacobs, an ICMN contributor. The piece, titled “Kanienkehake: People of the Flint” shows his fabric collage technique, a piece purchased by the Iroquois Indian Museum.

Artwork by Alex Jacobs/Photo by Leeanne Root

Alex Jacob’s “Kanienkehake: People of the Flint” on display at “Tattooed New York,” was also part of the “Indian Ink” exhibit at the Iroquois Indian Museum.

The exhibition will be on display at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library in New York City through April 30.