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Tattooing…a dead art?

Tattoo artist Cap Coleman in front of his East Main Street store. Taken by Museum photographer William Radcliffe, July 1936. (Accession# P873)

Many of you are probably aware that the Museum holds a wonderful collection of materials once used by the world famous Norfolk tattooist August Bernard Coleman, known as Cap Coleman. Our Coleman materials are one of our most popular and regularly requested collections for both private viewings and for loan to other institutions. Right now, the figurine of the “Tattooed Man” is currently on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts in an exhibition about fashion and design.

A couple of weeks ago a friend at Peabody Essex connected me with Nonie Gadsden, the Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Nonie was in the process of coordinating the acquisition of an object for their collection [Since the MFA hasn’t formally announced it yet I won’t spoil their surprise by telling you what it is!] and had some questions about our Coleman collection and how we acquired it. Answering those questions revealed a rather surprising motivation behind the Museum’s decision to acquire the materials.

The Tattooed Man figurine was created from a small plaster copy of “The Swimmer” by Swedish sculptor Johan Börjeson. Most likely Coleman acquired one of the many small cheap replicas available at the time and painted it himself to advertise his designs. Evidence for this is found in the individual images that decorate the figurine which include some of Coleman’s signature designs as well as those that were applied to his own body. (Accession# 1936.166.17)
The Tattooed Man standing in Cap Coleman’s shop window in July 1936. Photograph by William Radcliffe. (Accession# P874)

Coleman was born sometime in the early 1880s (the year and place change depending upon the source you look at, even his WWI and WWII draft registration cards and his death certificate don’t agree!). During his early life he traveled with the circus and by 1918 Coleman had settled in Norfolk. Just a few years later he had a thriving business on East Main Street and was one of the most well-known tattooists in the country.

In July 1936 the Museum arranged to acquire materials from Coleman’s business—inks and stenciling supplies; bottles and jars for alcohol and ointments; stencils; and antique tattooing needles and tattooing machines along with their battery switchboard. The Museum also acquired the tattooed man figurine and commissioned several pieces of artwork.

Inks, ointments and other supplies used by Coleman in his tattoo business. (Accession# 1936.166.06-.16)
Electric tattoo needle (Accession# 1936.166.02)

Looking at the materials it’s obvious the Museum arranged for Coleman to create an exhibition on tattooing. The two large format pen, ink and watercolor drawings of flash designs titled “Designs of the Tatttooers Art” were commissioned by the Museum and many of the items are labeled in such a way that anyone looking at them would understand their use. For example, two alcohol jars are identified as “Alcohol to clean skin” and “Alcohol to clean needles” while another states “Distilled water & listerine to mix colors.” The sheet of stencils is labeled “Stencils, used by the tattoo artist in executing his work” although in this instance I believe the Museum applied this particular label because it’s printed rather than handwritten. To support the physical materials of Coleman’s work they also sent Museum photographer William Radcliffe to Norfolk to take photographs of Coleman and his shop.

Designs of the Tattooers Art, watercolor by August Bernard Coleman, 1936. (Accession# 1936.166.20)
Cap Coleman tattooing unidentified patron in July 1936. Photograph by William Radcliffe. (Accession# P876)

One of the things Nonie was curious about was what prompted the Museum to acquire materials related to tattooing in the first place which she considered “really avant garde at the time” as well as what Coleman thought about his work going into a museum.

Looking at the Museum’s correspondence, the decision to acquire tattooing materials started on June 8, 1936 when Museum president Homer L. Ferguson sent a letter to one of our buyers in Connecticut. And this is the part you should make sure you are sitting down for!!! In the letter Ferguson states: “it has been suggested that we should try to get some instruments that have been used for tattooing, and also, if possible, a sheet showing various designs which used to be exhibited by shops where this work was done. At one time nearly all the seagoing people had some kind of tattooing but it is rapidly becoming a dead art.”

Photograph of US Navy sailor L. P. Dowell. (Accession#PP1120)

WHAAATTTT????? You have got to be kidding! I started laughing hysterically when I read that, but it’s stated again in the Museum’s monthly update: “On July 16, arrangements were made with a tattoo establishment in Norfolk to furnish the Museum with tattooing designs and equipment. With a very definite maritime heritage it was logical that our collection should include examples of a folk-art once universally encountered among American seamen. An interesting assortment of tattoo material arrived at the Museum on August 10, 1936.” And again in a letter dated October 26, 1936 to Archer M. Huntington: “This exhibit, consisting of an electric set, with marine designs and a model tattooed man was obtained over in Norfolk, Virginia, as an example of a marine art which is becoming more or less obsolete, although when I was a boy tattooing was a well-known mark of a sailor.”

Tattooed Sailor aboard USS New Jersey (BB-62) (Accession# PP2623)

So apparently the decision to collect the material was made with the thought that the Museum needed to take steps to preserve objects related to what they saw as a dying maritime art. Wouldn’t they be surprised to see how prevalent the practice is now and that non-tattooed people certainly seem to be in the minority! Granted, the art form has definitely shifted away from its early maritime roots.

As for Nonie’s second question, how did Coleman feel about his work going into a Museum, Richmond Times Dispatch reporter Arthur P. Henderson states in a 1937 article “the invitation from the Mariners Museum is something about which the cap’n has occasion to be justly proud.” Unfortunately the enigmatic Coleman remained quiet about his thoughts. One does wonder, however, if his quick agreement to help the Museum, despite his well-known irascibility, is an indication of his being secretly pleased and excited by the Museum’s request.

While we’ll never know how Coleman felt, we’ve certainly got to give some credit to the Museum’s early leadership for their foresight, even if it was based on an idea that later proved erroneous. The acquisition of those materials was certainly one of the most important in the Museum’s history and for tattooing enthusiasts everywhere.

Photograph by Shar Wolfe (Accession# MS0716.01.0
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