The Golden Age of Tattoo Art

When Jonathan Shaw opened Fun City Tattoo on the Bowery in 1987, tattooing was still technically illegal in New York City. Shaw, the son of big band legend Artie Shaw and actress Doris Dowling and, according to his pal Marilyn Manson, "a decorated veteran of the drug wars," didn't see that as a problem. "I said, 'Holy shit, I could go underground! There's no competition,'" Shaw said. For a while, he maintained a certain amount of secrecy about his tattoo operation. But high demand for Shaw’s custom work soon made attempts at stealthiness futile. "One day I said, this is ridiculous. The cops know we're here. They come here for tattoos. So I put up a sign."

His days studying the history of American tattoo stylings at Fun City Tattoo provided the backbone of Shaw's new book, Vintage Tattoo Flash. Shaw began collecting flash — the sheets of line drawings that tattoo artists keep in binders or display at the front of their shops to give customers an idea of their ink options — in the '80s. "I had a great love for these old folk designs, and shops back then were trying to modernize," Shaw explained. Sheets from the turn of the 20th century, which sell at auction for tens of thousands of dollars today, wound up gathering dust in boxes in the back of tattoo parlors. "I just went around telling people, 'Oh, I'll take that stuff off your hands," Shaw said. "Otherwise they would just toss it in the dumpster."

The pieces in Vintage Tattoo Flash come from the last century, but the highest concentration of work is from the 1900s to the 1960s. They represent much of the familiar iconography of American tattooing: ships, half-dressed women, birds of prey, panthers, daggers, roses, and, yes, hearts emblazoned with mom. What's fascinating to see, by leafing through Shaw's collection, is how the art form has evolved in the last hundred years. By the 1950s and '60s, the Sailor Jerry–esque American traditional designs begin to shift into different territory, influenced by other styles of tattooing: a touch of traditional Japanese here, a hint of realism there. As Shaw writes in the introduction, "tattooing has long been a mobile art form." Vintage Tattoo Flash makes the souvenirs it has picked up along the way evident.

Flash art's reputation, too, has come a long way. For tattoo artists, the quick sketches for clientele were often viewed as lesser art than customized work for a customer. "There's a certain snobbery there that's a repercussion from the transition from old school tattooing to more art school tattooing," Shaw said. "People from a newer generation weren't limited to hulu girls and crawling panthers and ships and anchors. But for a while, that was really it — the stereotypes about sailors and bikers and thugs getting tattooed were really true. When these artsy people got involved, myself included, there was a break from that. Suddenly everything had to be custom. People would bring in atrocious things clipped out of books, drawn by themselves or their kids. But it was custom."

"Now I don’t think it’s so much that way," Shaw continued. "Flash has now come to have a very legitimate and almost sacred place in the toolkit of the art. The stuff in this book is really classic and old, and it's not so much a design catalog as it is a record of a time and place in the history of this very vibrant, very important folk art."

It’s not Shaw's first foray into the publishing world. In 2005 Shaw sold the shop and packed up his tattooing gear to focus on writing, and now splits his time between Los Angeles and tooling around on a motorcycle in Rio de Janeiro. In 2015 Harper Collins published the first trade edition of his novel Narcisa: Our Lady of Ashes, with an introduction by No Wave musician Lydia Lunch and blurbs by former clients Johnny Depp, Jim Jarmusch, and Iggy Pop. Later this year, he plans to publish a several-volume-long collection of his memoirs, titled Scab Vendor.

Vintage Tattoo Flash, Shaw said, was no sweat in comparison to the labor of writing a novel. "It's the easiest book I ever published," he said. "All the work of collecting the stuff and having the authority to see what was good and not, that work was already done 30 years ago. It was like someone saying, 'Hey, do you have a family scrapbook? We want to make it into a coffee-table art book. And I said sure, man," he laughed. "Sure."