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The art of the tattoo

We have many collections to be proud of here at The Mariners’ Museum, but one of our most popular, which also happens to be one of my favorite, is the collection of tattoo pieces that belonged to the famed August “Cap” Coleman. Coleman opened shop in Norfolk in 1918, but was forced out after WWII due to a law was passed in Norfolk making tattooing illegal.

Our collection of Coleman objects came to us through the years, with the bulk being purchased directly from Coleman in 1936. Two of my favorite pieces are sheets of tattoo designs that were both signed by Coleman, making them extra special (pictured below). The designs are are very colorful and showcase Coleman’s artistic ability.

Our little tattoo man (pictured below) is another piece that I really love from this collection. It has been dated from the WWI era and was hand painted to act as an advertisement for anyone looking to get a tattoo. It used to sit in the window of Coleman’s shop (which you can see in the first picture). A rather clever way to advertise as it more accurately shows how a particular tattoo might look on the human body.

We have other items from Coleman, including tattoo needles, a battery for the needles, various bottles, and a few other tattoo designs/stencils. One sad story that comes out of this collection is the theft of one of the electric needles, made by Percy Walters and used by Coleman in the 30’s. In 1999 it was stolen from where it was displayed in our exhibition Skin Deep: The Art of the Tattoo. The staff was very disturbed and distressed to discover it missing and we still hope that one day it might surface again. Below is a picture.

The most recent exhibition where our tattoo items were shown was in 2010 at Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the exhibition, and I thought it was very enjoyable and very well done. Hopefully we’ll get another chance for these great pieces to be displayed again in the future.

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