Charlie Wagner tattooing Millie Hull, 1939; Image courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.
We think of 1960s, ’70s and ’80s New York City as a freewheeling island of individuality and an alternative lifestyle haven, but the practice of body tattooing–more popular throughout history than many realize–was banned from 1961 until 1997. The ban was blamed on a Hepatitis B outbreak but could have had its origins in a number of things from a pre-World’s Fair crackdown to a health inspector’s personal vendetta. “Tattooed New York,” a current exhibition at the New-York Historical Society traces the practice of tattooing from its use among Native American tribes through its history with sailors, trendy victorian ladies and more recent ink aficionados. One of the more fascinating detours of that history tells of how the scene changed with the ban, when NYC’s tattoo artists set up private shops in their apartments.