This summer, Lauren Eller is visiting some of Baltimore’s neighborhood-level museums. Like the communities they are located, these museums have a strong, colorful identity all their own Each deserves a closer look, for though they may be off the beaten track, the history held within is both harrowing and fascinating in equal turns.
The Baltimore Tattoo Museum, nestled in historic Fells Point, is a place that seeks to share the story of the tattoo. Since the late 19th century, this combination of tattoo studio and museum has preserved the rich history of the inky artform.
The walls inside are covered with the artwork of various tattoo artists, whose tradition lives on even today. The work of artists such as Mike Malone, Paul Rogers, Pat Martynuik, Lyle Tuttle, and Betty Broadbent (among others) are hung in frames and pattern the entire exhibit. Biographies accompany the reproductions of each artist’s designs.
Behind the glass are all kinds of images: fierce, growling animals, fearsome skulls, flowers in myriad colors, and more nude women than I could count. There are big ones and small ones, religious and secular, inspiring and frightening.
Visitors learn that the history of tattooing was once tightly tied to the history of the circus. It was common for tattoo artists to begin working at a circus, like Betty Broadbent, who began her work with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
One of my favorite tidbits was about Lyle Tuttle, an artist who had a shop in San Francisco. His work was well known and he attracted a great deal of media attention, in part because he tattooed famous people such as Janis Joplin. Apparently when Joplin died, Tuttle went to her apartment with a few others who knew her and adopted a cat she had left behind. He named it Baltimore in honor of the street that Joplin lived on.
Even if you have no plans to ever get a tattoo myself (like me), strolling through the collection at this museum helps to understand the fascination so many have had with with the tattoo — as art, recreation, profession, and form of expression — over the years.