Ray Willis was in the middle of the sweltering Amazon rainforest earlier this year when a complete stranger took one look at the tattoo emblazoned on Willis’ right shoulder above the words, “Original Gangsta,” and said, “That’s John DeStefano.” Willis, a city employee who crowdsourced funding for the tattoo to commemorate the New Haven mayor’s record-breaking 20-year career, was shocked. A large photo of Willis’s tattoo is just one of the many quirky items that will be featured in this exhibit.
Old School Ink guest curator Elinor Slomba enlisted New Haven photojournalist Corey Hudson in her examination of why and where locals get tattoos, and how the industry, public policy, and aesthetics surrounding the art of tattooing have evolved over time. After conferring with contemporary tattoo artists, community members and tattoo historians, and researching and borrowing from archival collections, the materials and stories Slomba has assembled will reveal the roots of a thriving “Old School” tradition, and offer insight into how the Elm City has contributed to the tattoo field worldwide.
Old School Ink explores four aspects of tattooing, beginning with the tools of the trade, and a look at New Haven area innovators, including Samuel O’Reilly, who patented the first electric tattoo machine in 1891. Henry Silver, the earliest known tattoo artist to advertise in the New Haven Register, used red ink that would have likely been made from cinnabar, also known as vermillion or mercury sulfide, according to tattoo historian Carmen Nyssen. The blue ink he used may have come from India gunpowder or even soot from lamps.
The show also examines what tattooing means to those who practice the trade. Notable current artists include Joe Capobianco, owner of Hope Gallery, who has designed his own tattoo machine, and a line of inks particularly suited to the style he is known for nationally—the pin-up-style character known as “The Capo Girl.” According to Capobianco, “Once you start doing this, it does tend to just take over. You literally become a tattooer, you’re not just some artist who’s putzing around on somebody’s skin. You’re constantly thinking about how you’re going to do what you’re going to do next, and how to get better.”