Glass cases display old tattoo guns, pigment bottles, framed photographs of inked members of carnival sideshows and original painted designs from a rogue's gallery of legendary tattoo artists. Those decades-old designs cascade down the walls like photographs from a wallet. This is the New Orleans Tattoo Museum & Studio, assembled from tattoo artist "Doc" Don Lucas' years of collecting and globetrotting to tell the story and history of tattooing.
A tattoo artist for more than 40 years, Lucas, now 60, pulls back his shoulder-length silver hair, and full sleeves of tattoos peek from under a grey sweatshirt.
"The history was undocumented," he says. "You go to these old-timers and learn from them, because there was no school or learning text."
The 2,000-square-foot museum at Martin Luther King Jr. and Oretha Castle Haley boulevards hosts its grand opening March 21. Lucas and museum co-founder and artist Adam Montegut will offer gallery space for visiting artists and host artist talks and a tattoo studio. The space, Montegut says, pairs the new school with the old, and artists can use the space to study and find inspiration in older, unearthed works.
"My other passion was the history, to document as much of the history I've been blessed to have given to me or bought," Lucas says. "Now I'm the old-timer."
Lucas says New Orleans' port city status was pivotal in bringing tattoo artists to the city, though the often transitory, traveling roadshow of early 20th-century tattooists and their shops largely is undocumented. Samuel O'Reilly invented the prototype for the modern electric tattoo machine in 1891 based on Thomas Edison's designs for a printing pen. (O'Reilly also "had a pass," Lucas says, to tattoo both Confederate and Union soldiers in the Civil War.) Lucas estimates there were 150 traveling artists by the turn of the century, and nearly one artist for every major city.
In the 1920s, George Pinell opened his first tattoo parlor in the 200 block of Canal Street. Its sign advertised "Prof. Geo. Pinell Electric Tattooing." Pinell also spent nearly three decades working from inside a truck near Canal and N. Peters Street, and in 1955, he opened a closet-sized shop under the ferry landing at the foot of Canal. The space was so small that customers sat with one leg outside the door and the other inside the shop, which advertised Pinell as a "tattooing specialist" with "all the latest designs."
Pinell — dubbed "The Professor" and "Old Man" — was among only a handful of tattooists in the New Orleans area. In 1958, he told The Times-Picayune's Dixie magazine that his most popular tattoo was a person's Social Security number. "This is what I call a neighborhood business," he said. "One person in a block gets it done and tells his neighbors. Many think it's a good idea and follow suit."
Another early New Orleans tattooist, "Tattoo Tony" — whose address was only a half number inside a rented-out closet — traveled with carnival sideshows before opening his shop in New Orleans. Carnival tattooists charged 25 to 50 cents for a tattoo, which came with a cigar to be unwrapped seven days later, along with the tattoo's bandage.
"In seven days, he's 100 miles down the road," Lucas says, laughing. "The guy takes off his bandage and there's a thick tattooed scab. He lights up the cigar and passes out."
Sterilization, of course, wasn't a priority. Tattooists would change a bucket of water once a week and add a drop of Listerine, and add a drop of alcohol and camphor into their pigments only to stick a six-month-old needle into it the next day.
"There were so many odd-job guys who passed through and were just never known," Lucas said. "They're hard to pin down and find anything about them. Some people on their cards advertised they worked here, and Portsmouth and Guam and Hawaii." Tattoo artist Johnny Walters, for instance, who started tattooing in the 1940s, advertised locations in "Hawaii, Guam, New Orleans" on his 1960s business cards.
Another Times-Picayune story from 1972 charted the popularity of "the ancient art of tattooing," and Dauphine Street tattooist Tommy Williams said his shop remained busy from noon to midnight. Lucas also recalls the firebombing of French Quarter shop Custom Tattoos in the late 1970s, allegedly at the hands of a rival biker gang, the Galloping Gooses chapter of the Hell's Angels.
Montegut made a timeline and a wall-sized map of New Orleans that pinpoints parlor locations over the years, from Pinell's narrow quarters to the more than 40 studios operating today.
"Right now is an art renaissance for tattooing," Lucas says. "The level of artistic ability working these days, what they can do on skin is as amazing as anything on canvas. It's living, breathing art. It's a signature of your soul. You can't do that on canvas. You can't get that close to the artist."
Lucas was born near a naval shipyard on Mare Island outside Vallejo, California. In 1972, he started his tattoo apprenticeship under "Rangoon" Ricky Bordeaux at Skin's House of Illustration, which looked not unlike a Norman Rockwell barber shop.
Lucas flips through a Polaroid scrapbook (titled "The Roots") that Bordeaux gave him as a graduation gift and points to a photo of his younger self tattooing his own thigh. Bordeaux left an inscription inside the cover: "from Rangoon 'Dad' Ricky." Lucas did his first tattoo in 1974.
In 1983, Lucas opened a studio on Airline Drive. It was the only tattoo studio in Metairie.
"The city disliked you, the police hated you, nobody wanted you to move next door to them — you were a pariah. At least I was," he says. "It spooked them so bad they grandfathered me in and stopped anyone else from getting a license."
Among Lucas' apprentices was Henri Montegut, Adam's father, who would later open Electric Expressions in neighboring Kenner in 1990. While Henri Montegut was an apprentice, there only were a handful of shops in the New Orleans area, including Brad's Westbank Tattoo and Jacci Gresham's Aart Accent on Rampart Street, which opened in 1976 (making it the oldest operating tattoo parlor in town). Lucas' notable clients include Ronnie Virgets, Aaron Neville and Anne Rice (he also stuck a fake tattoo on Alec Gifford's cheek during a 1997 tattoo convention).
Adam — a graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School and the Maryland Institute College of Art — apprenticed under his father and started tattooing in 2006. Lucas considers him the third generation.
Lucas also wrote biographies of Franklin Paul Rogers, The Father of American Tattooing, with whom Lucas closely worked until Rogers' death in 1990. Lucas tracked down tattoo collections from retired or retiring artists, including the life's work of famed artist George "Doc" Webb, which spanned Webb's 60-year career. (Lining the museum's entrance are Webb's "flash" paintings — punctured hearts, skulls and tigers, daggers wrapped in banners.) Lucas also bought collections from Europe and Canada (from renowned one-armed artist Curly Allen), "and it just built and became an addiction," Lucas says.
"This had been my wish for a long time, to have a museum and just tattoo part-time," he says. "My wish came true because of Adam, who put this place together. We talked about it a little bit and hooked up to make a world-class museum out of it and put world-class art out of it. I prayed for that for years, and it came true."
Lucas says those prayers helped him survive a cancer diagnosis.
"I wasn't afraid at all," he says. "I don't know if I was stupid, or if I had a lot of faith. Faith got my wife and I through. ... It wasn't my time."
Lucas plans to tattoo part-time inside the museum, while Montegut tattoos in the adjacent studio. "It's an art and a science," he says. "You have to be a craftsman, an artist, kind of a psychologist, a businessperson, you have to know a little bit about medicine — all those things work into it all at the same time.
"I've lived through it. I've seen it when it was socially unacceptable, and I'm still here, and it's as acceptable as Ivory soap."