Pittsburgh’s newest art museum continues American tattoo tradition
American tattoos have come a long way since the art form originated on the arms of sailors and circus performers. Today, teachers, doctors, and people from all walks of life wear designs to honor people, places, and things. A new museum in Shadyside pays homage to the history between these two periods.
The Pittsburgh Tattoo Art Museum opened in March in a basement on Walnut Street. On display, visitors will find artifacts that once belonged to Percy Waters, Bert Grimm and Lew Alberts. These names may not be as familiar as Picasso, Andy Warhol or Salvador Dalí, but their legacy is just as important in the world of American tattooing.
The space – part museum, part tattoo shop – is the brainchild of Nick Ackman, a veteran tattoo artist who spent time in cities across the United States before settling in Bellevue with partner Jill Krznaric . Ackman and Krznaric tattoo in the back of the shop.
Ackman’s huge collection of tattoo machines, flash sheets covered in 20th century designs, letters, photographs and other memorabilia is legendary. Only about a fifth of its collection fits in museum cases.
“People were constantly asking me to come and see my collection and stuff, but rummaging through everything and…the way I have stuff stored or locked away, you can’t really do that,” Ackman said. “So I thought about wanting to have a space for years.”
But the timing was never good. Then, Krznaric found a dozen display cases for sale last year at a closing antique store in Canonsburg, and the couple needed a place to put them. After checking two spaces, they settled in the basement shop next to Kawaii Gifts.
It is appropriate. The tattoo has spent much of its history underground – too taboo for mainstream American culture.
“We made jokes about it,” Ackman said. “I think it’s good that we’re kind of hidden in the street and people have to slightly look for it.”
Once you’ve found the place and entered, you’ll likely be greeted by music and the hum of tattoo machines. Every square inch of the space, down to the display cases, is organized to fit Ackman and Krznaric’s vision. Most of the cases were made in Pittsburgh in the 1920s and 1940s, around the same time as most of the objects they contain. Another display sits atop an old tattoo workstation at a St. Louis store.
Ackman has always had an affinity for the traditional style of American tattoos. The style is characterized by bold, clean lines and heavily saturated colors. Many purists live and are inspired by a single phrase, “Bold will hold.”
“We both love traditional images, and we both love historical images…Even when we draw things, they’re informed by the historical images and the collection of things that we have,” Ackman said. “We want people to come and get tattooed traditionally.”
And they did. Both Ackman and Krznaric focused their work entirely on the traditional American style.
“I feel like every day I come here, and I just do designs where I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing one of these! I can’t believe I’m making another one!’ Krznaric said of tattooing traditional designs. “And those are things that I’ve always wanted to do.”
Ackman is a source of information on the evolution of tattooing in America. He has written seven books on different tattoo icons published by his own Blue Letter Books. The museum’s inaugural exhibitions focus on these seven books. Visitors can learn more about each article by viewing one of Ackman’s publications.
But the shop also has oddities like tattoo magazines; permission slips giving the green light to tattoos for old-time teens; and diagrams of tattoo machines from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
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After perusing the half-dozen cases, visitors leave with a better understanding of the culture of the time. Tattoo artists designed their flash sheets to include images of the day, according to Ackman.
“I think it’s really great that you can look at tattoo designs from any place at any time, and you can tell a lot about the wants and needs of the people in that place,” did he declare. “It’s the art of the people.
Many objects in its collection date from the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, a lot of tattoos happened near military bases or in traveling circuses. Because the windows are from the same period, the viewer is transported back in time by reading the files of a particular style, supply store or artist.
The collection is also full of stories from the military, the circus, and old Hollywood. Krznaric argues that anyone could find something that speaks to them in the collection.
“Maybe you’re not into tattoos, and that’s fine. But maybe you would find old magazine covers, illustrations, advertisements and things like that,” she said. “Even just the story, you know, a lot of them are soldier tattoos.”
Since only 20% of his collection can be displayed at any one time, Ackman plans to change exhibits approximately every six months. It hopes to unveil new displays alongside new posts that provide the backstory for each new article.
Among his many boxes at home, Ackman has plenty of Pittsburgh-related items. An old tattoo machine made by JG Russell and flash sheets created by sailor Ned Resinol while in town are among the treasures Ackman hopes to share at an upcoming exhibit.
“Pittsburgh itself has a really great tattoo history,” Ackman said. “I have an envelope that [Jack Wills, who spent time in Pittsburgh in the 1920s] sent to tattoo artist Fred Marquand. And I’m sure the address is 9 Federal [Street], so it would have been across from where the baseball stadium is there now. The old block has completely disappeared.
Tattoo museums aren’t particularly common, though you can find them in other parts of the United States, like New York’s Daredevil Tattoo shop and North Carolina’s iconic Tattoo Archive. It has always been up to tattoo artists and their families to preserve the legacy and artifacts of great American names like “Prof” Milton Zeis, Fred Marquand and Harry Warren.
Ackman said he was considering placing some of his collection in a more traditional museum, but was concerned that fine art curators might not be able to manage the pieces as well as he could. Many pieces came to him via a chain of tattoo artists or a member of the artist’s family who originally owned the machine, stencil or flash.
“In the past, I wrote e-mails [to fine art museums] and asked if they were interested in a tattoo show, but they never got a response,” Ackman said.
Ackman doesn’t aim to make tattoos a nerd art form. He likes the taboo that still surrounds culture.
“I don’t think the tattoo should be exposed on a level where everyone knows everything,” he said. “I think it’s nice that it’s magical and mysterious and different and all those things.”
Anyone interested in learning more about tattoos, industry heavyweights, and a bit of American history just have to stop by the shop and take a look.
The Pittsburgh Tattoo Art Museum is open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free, but a recommended donation of $5 goes towards the preservation and restoration of the collection.