Before you get the Chinese character for love inked on your lower back, consider the 2006 Pew Research Center survey that revealed 40 percent of Americans ages 26–40 and 36 percent of those 18–25 have tattoos. (Unless you’re Chinese, you should also consult a native speaker and a cultural-studies professor.)
As tattoos become more mainstream than edgy, an exhibition such as Intuit’s “Freaks & Flash” seems like the perfect opportunity to acquaint a new audience with the history of a fascinating vernacular art form. Spanning the late 19th century to the 1970s, the show primarily presents examples of “flash”—design drawings for tattoos—by artists from the United States and Europe, as well as carnival banners such as Jack Cripe’s Tattooed Wonder (pictured) and acetate stencils used to apply designs to skin.
As eye candy, “Freaks & Flash” is a success. As a scholarly exhibition, it’s more ill-conceived than Johnny Depp’s “Winona Forever” tat. Cocurators Anna Friedman Herlihy and Jan Petry know their subject. They’ve assembled flash by the 20th century’s most influential tattoo artists, including Norman Keith “Sailor Jerry” Collins (1911–73), an American who served in the Navy and spent most of his career tattooing sailors in Honolulu. But Friedman Herlihy, an SAIC instructor and doctoral candidate in the University of Chicago’s History of Culture program, and Petry, the chair of the Intuit board’s exhibits committee, offer no information about who was getting tattooed, how attitudes toward tattoos evolved, how tattoo artists learned their trade or why certain motifs became ubiquitous.
Judging from the number of eagles, American flags, banners saying U.S.N. and helmeted bulldogs on display, it’s obvious that members of the armed forces accounted for much of the early-20th-century tattoo market. Many “Freaks & Flash” designs remain familiar to contemporary eyes; butterflies, roses, daggers, dragons and hearts have evidently been popular tattoos for more than a century.
It’s the exceptions we find most interesting, however, such as the many respectful portraits of nurses, Chicago tattoo artist Tatts Thomas’s cartoon of a sailor carrying his duffel above the words NEVER AGAIN, and Sailor Jerry’s racist flash from the Vietnam War. If only the exhibition put this work in cultural or historical context.
We’re also drawn to the show’s earliest designs, masterpieces by Englishman George Burchett, whose Tiger (ca. 1888–98) and other flash surely were inspired by his naval career in Asia; and a watercolor-like image of a splendid ship at sunset, created in 1898 by Samuel O’Reilly, the American inventor of the electric tattooing machine. “Freaks & Flash” balances these pioneers’ designs with an impressive array of materials by important Midwestern tattoo artists including Rockford, Illinois’s Milton Zeis and Cliff Raven (1932–2001), who founded what’s now the Chicago Tattooing & Piercing Co. in Lakeview. But if you, like us, want to know more about Raven’s 1970s flash, which includes the show’s only homoerotic images, you’re out of luck.
Given the art world’s financial straits, it’s understandable if Intuit can’t produce an exhibition catalog, but the show’s absence of biographies and wall text is mystifying. The collectors lending these materials to Intuit, who include Chicago Tattooing’s Nick Colella, Michelle Fire of Big Chicks/Tweet and local artist Mitch O’Connell, are intriguing in their own right. Don’t they have any secrets to spill about inking?