Pittsburgh's newest art museum keeps the tradition of American tattooing alive
American tattoos have come a long way from the art form’s origin on the arms of sailors and circus performers. Today, teachers, doctors and people from all walks of life don designs to honor people, places and things. A new museum in Shadyside pays homage to the history between those two time periods.
The Pittsburgh Tattoo Art Museum opened in March in a basement shop on Walnut Street. On display, visitors will find artifacts that used to belong to Percy Waters, Bert Grimm and Lew Alberts. These names might not be as familiar as Picasso, Andy Warhol or Salvador Dalí, but their legacies are just as big in the world of American tattooing.
The space — part museum, part tattoo shop — is the brainchild of Nick Ackman, a veteran tattooer who has spent time in cities all over the U.S. before settling in Bellevue with his partner Jill Krznaric. Both Ackman and Krznaric tattoo in the back of the shop.
Ackman’s massive collection of tattoo machines, flash sheets covered in 20th-century designs, letters, photographs and other memorabilia is the stuff of legend. Only about one-fifth of his collection fits in the museum display cases.
“People constantly would ask me to come see my collection and all that, but digging through everything and… the way I have things stored away or locked away, you just can’t really do that,” Ackman said. “So I’ve thought about wanting to have a space for years.”
But the timing was never right. Then, Krznaric found a dozen display cases up for sale last year at an antique shop closing in Canonsburg, and the couple needed a place to put them. After checking out two spaces, they settled on the basement shop next to Kawaii gifts.
It’s fitting. Tattooing has spent so much of its history underground — too taboo for mainstream American culture.
“We’ve made some jokes about it,” Ackman said. “I think it’s neat that we’re kind of hidden off the street in a way and that people have to slightly look for it.”
Once you find the place and walk in, you’ll likely be greeted by music and the buzzing hum of tattoo machines. Every inch of the space, down to the display cases, is curated to fit Ackman's and Krznaric’s vision. Most of the display cases were made in Pittsburgh during the 1920s and 1940s, the same era as many of the items they hold. Another display sits atop an old tattoo workstation from a shop in St. Louis.
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 draw by one phrase, “Bold will hold.”
“Both of us like traditional imagery, and both of us like historical images… Even when we draw things, it’s informed by the historical images and the collection of things that we have,” Ackman said. “We want people to come in and get traditional tattoos.”
And they have. Both Ackman and Krznaric have focused their work entirely on the American traditional 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 those! I can’t believe I’m doing another one of those!’” Krznaric said about tattooing traditional designs. “And it’s stuff I’ve always wanted to do.”
Ackman is a wellspring of information about how tattooing has evolved in America. He’s written seven books about different tattooing icons published by his own Blue Letter Books. The museum’s inaugural displays are focused on those seven books. Visitors can learn more about each item by checking out one of Ackman’s publications.
But the shop also has curiosities like tattoo magazines; permission slips greenlighting tattoos for teenagers of yesteryear; and schematics for tattoo machines from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
After peering through the half dozen or so cases, visitors come away with a better understanding of the culture of the era. Tattoo artists designed their flash sheets to include imagery of the day, according to Ackman.
“I think it’s really neat that you can look at the tattoo designs of any specific place and time, and you can tell a lot about what the wants and needs of the people of that place are,” he said. “It’s the art of the people.”
Many of the items in his collection are from the early 20th century. During that era, a lot of tattooing happened near military bases or in traveling circuses. Because the cases are of the same period, the viewer is transported through time by reading the cards about a style, supply shop or a particular artist.
The collection is also brimming with stories from the military, circus and old Hollywood. Krznaric argues anyone could find something that speaks to them in the collection.
“Maybe you’re not interested in tattoos, and that’s fine. But maybe you would find old magazine covers and illustrations and advertising and things like that,” she said. “Even just the history, you know, a lot of these are soldiers’ tattoos.”
Since only 20% of his collection can be on display at any time, Ackman plans to switch out exhibits about every six months. He hopes to unveil new displays alongside new publications that provide the backstory for each new item.
Among his many boxes at home, Ackman has plenty of items tied to Pittsburgh. An old tattoo machine made by J.G Russell and flash sheets created by sailor Ned Resinol during his time in the city are among the treasures Ackman hopes to share in an upcoming display.
“Pittsburgh itself has a really neat history of tattooing,” Ackman said. “I have an envelope that [Jack Wills, who spent time in Pittsburgh in the 1920s] sent to tattooer Fred Marquand. And I'm pretty sure the address is 9 Federal [Street], so it would have been across from where the baseball stadium is down there now. The old block is completely gone.”
Tattoo museums aren’t particularly common, though you can find them in other parts of the U.S., such as New York City’s Daredevil Tattoo shop and North Carolina’s iconic Tattoo Archive. It’s always been up to tattooers and their families to preserve the legacies and artifacts of American greats like “Prof” Milton Zeis, Fred Marquand and Harry Warren.
Ackman said he’s thought about putting some of his collection in a more traditional museum but worries fine art curators could not steward the pieces as well as he does. Many pieces came to him through a chain of tattooers or a family member of the artist who originally owned the machine, stencil or flash.
“In the past, I have written emails [to fine art museums] and asked them if they had any interest in having a tattoo show but never got any response back,” Ackman said.
Ackman isn’t aiming to make tattoos into a highbrow art form. He likes the taboo that still surrounds the culture.
“I don’t think that tattooing needs to be exposed to some level where everybody knows all about it,” he said. “I think it’s good that it’s magical and mysterious and different and all of those things.”
Anyone interested in learning more about tattoos, the heavyweights of the industry and a bit of American history need only stop by the shop and take a look around.
The Pittsburgh Tattoo Art Museum is open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free, but a recommended $5 donation goes toward preserving and restoring the collection.