Inking New York

By Dongxiao Ma

Tattoo artist Spider Webb tattoos the shoulder of his assistant during a demonstration outside the Museum of Modern Art, Aug. 4, 1976. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)

Annie Sprinkle sat down on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was in lace lingerie and high heels. Smiling, she lifted her thin clothing and exposed her left thigh. Meanwhile the bearded, longhaired tattoo artist, Spider Webb, prepared to ink her skin, expressionless. This was in the mid-1980s and Spider Webb was protesting against a health ban on tattooing issued in the ’60s.

From 1959 to 1961, 30 cases of hepatitis B, caused by unsterilized equipment, were found in eight tattoo parlors in New York City. In October, 1961, the city’s Board of Health banned all tattooing and declared that it was “unlawful for any person to tattoo a human being.” This was the beginning of a 36-year underground era for tattooing in New York City.

Mike Bakaty, the owner of Fineline Tattoo, experienced the historic turning point. “There weren’t many shops in New York at that time … half a dozen, maybe 10, if I were being generous,” he recalled. “The artists had to work underground. I worked in my own loft where I lived.” Most tattoo parlors were no bigger than a closet. There were no public shops; A had to know B in order to reach an artist for a tattoo. Artists were fined if they were caught doing it.

Tattooing had always been closely associated with sailors, pirates and outlaws not bound by rules or Christian traditions that prohibited body modification. In the 19th century, sailors took tattooing from the Pacific islands back to Europe, and soon it became a fad among other sailors and outlaws. In 1846, a German immigrant, Martin Hilderbrandt, brought tattooing to New York and established the city’s first tattoo shop on Oak Street in lower Manhattan. The area in 1846 was embroiled in gang wars, and the city’s destitute new immigrants, bold sailors, union soldiers, prostitutes and especially various gangsters provided the perfect soil for tattooing to grow.

The long existed unlawful image of tattooing may have contributed more to the 1961 health ban than hepatitis. Jerome Trichter, the assistant commissioner of the health board, said tattooing “served no useful purpose,” a judgment that has little to do with health concerns. Tattooing with sanitary measures does not spread hepatitis, but it was easier for the government to ban the entire practice rather than regulate it.

Some tattoo artists questioned the specious connection between disease and tattooing and decided to protest against the law. The most famous of those in New York was Spider Webb. He was a leading rebellious figure in the city’s tattooing circles from the 1960s to the 1980s. In 1976, he inked a black dragon on his assistant’s shoulder in front of the Museum of Modern Art. The action brought him a court summon for violating health laws. Spider Webb did not regard his action as illegal and refused to pay any fine.

“They were challenged,” he remembered the authorities decided to drop the case because “they” wanted to avoid dealing with the issue that tattooing would not spread disease.

Artist protests against the health ban were also aimed at overturning the social stereotype of tattooing. Into the 1980s, local artists repeatedly appealed against the health ban on tattooing in New York, though they were rejected every time. Around the same period, Spider Webb decided to protest again. This time, he chose to do it on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Annie Sprinkle was the one being inked. Annie Sprinkle was a popular porn star, famous for her fetish urination performances and her idea of combining sex with meditation.

With the grand museum as a background, Webb’s action became a challenge to conventional society as well as the law. He was conveying a message — tattooing deserved freedom and a public recognition.

Aware of Spider Webb’s protest, the New York police chose not to take action, because media were already present. Staff from the museum asked them to leave, but Spider Webb refused.

Such exposure helped the public to get to know tattooing. But it still had to wait another decade or so, when the ban was lifted in 1997, to be fully acknowledged.

Bakaty said the ideas linking tattooing with “bad people” never really went away. “People still think others with tattoos are scary.”

Today in New York City, tattoo artists can work in public shops through licenses and infection control exams. With 1,900 licensed artists and hundreds of shops available, it is easy for anyone who is over 18 years old and suddenly feels an impulse to get a tattoo.

A tattoo by Mehai Bakaty at Fineline Tattoo in New York City.

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