Somehow, a singularly rare specimen of antique Japanese tattoo flash made its way into the hands of a working-class Arkansan who never traveled much of anywhere. Now, after sitting for decades in a trunk in Oklahoma, its contents have been reproduced meticulously in a new book called “Floating West,” shining light on a sparsely documented era of the inky art form.
Back in the early 1900s, America was harboring a big ol’ crush on Japanese culture. (Some things never change.) Part of that fascination was (and is) Western colonialism writ large, no doubt; encroachment by U.S. Navy warships forced Japan to end its isolationist policies in 1868, and the doors of trade and travel were gradually pried open for foreign nationals — those with enough cash and cachet to make the trip, anyway. Rich Europeans and Americans alike returned home with symbols of the exotic, which then served as both family souvenirs and trophies to trot out at parties. They brought back hand-painted fans, lacquered hardwood cabinets inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl, translucent enamel bowls. And tattoos.
Though Indigenous North Americans had been tattooing for centuries, it was the Japanese aesthetic that fueled a burgeoning “American Traditional” style, and to be an 1880s tourist returning stateside with a sweet dragon tat across your back was to be the talk of the town. There’s a photo in “Floating West” of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s son, Charles — eyes obscured by a black mask, handlebar mustache, sleeved from wrist to wrist in dragonflies, leaves and geishas, his chest covered by a Buddha meditating serenely in the jaws of a dragon — and it’s easy to imagine the poet’s son shedding his shirt after a few drinks to delight and/or scandalize guests at an upper crust soirée. (Accounts from those in Longfellow’s circle testify that this very thing happened, more than once.) When the Japanese government, as part of its reinvention strategy, banned tattooists from inking Japanese citizens, the island’s tattoo artists fled to the treaty ports to work on tourists. Some left for England, Australia and the U.S. and adapted their flash to suit the tastes of sailors and adventurers like Longfellow.
Artifacts of tattoo flash — the designs tattooists display for potential clients — from this particular era are pretty scarce. So, when photos of an immaculate set of hand-painted Meiji-era designs popped up on Pinterest, a Texas-based tattooist named Nick York raised his eyebrows.
York works in Denton, Texas, at a place called Dark Age Tattoo. He describes his style as “American Traditional, with a heavy emphasis on the history and antique designs.” Like most artists working in that style, York is fond of bold black lines and animal imagery. But his fondness is, shall we say, not exactly casual. York has, as far as he knows, the world’s largest collection of antique “cabinet card” photographs of tattooed performers and tattoo artists. He has amassed hundreds of other examples of early 1900s tattoo memorabilia, not the least of which is the tattoo machine he actually uses on his clients, day in and day out. “If you come and get tattooed by me,” he said, “it is in every way like getting tattooed 100 years ago, except the needles are cleaner.” He’s constantly searching for new objects to peruse.
“If you have recently come across an old photo of someone with tattoos and want to find out more,” York’s website reads, “please contact me! Day or night. Even if it’s 3 a.m.” Every now and then, York told me, he has dreams that he finds a treasure trove full of antique tattoo flash in an old house. He wakes up disappointed.
York told Derin Bray, a New Hampshire-based antique dealer and fellow tattoo history buff, about the unusual booklet of flash from Pinterest. Turns out, Bray not only knew about it, he’d been hired to appraise it a few years earlier. That commission came from a woman living in Oklahoma, Alisa Welch. The book belonged to her grandfather, a jack-of-all-trades named Tom Musser. She’d been keeping the relic in a trunk of family heirlooms among other items of Musser’s — his journals, his fountain pens, a Lucky Strike tobacco tin filled with mugshots. “She didn’t know what she had,” York said, and wanted to find out more about it. There were clues that he’d dabbled in tattoo work in the daybooks he kept, but they were brief and cryptic: a ledger of family members and friends on whom he’d done 25- and 50-cent tattoos. The address for a mail-order tattoo kit company. Rudimentary doodles of daggers and stars and hearts and a horse with the date Mar. 3, 1912, scribbled across its body.
In 1912, Thomas Jefferson Musser was working as a grocery store clerk on Little Rock’s Wright Avenue. Musser was in his late 20s then, lanky and lean and mustachioed, and he put his hands to work as a mail carrier, a photo developer, a butcher and a carpenter over the course of his time in the state capital, city directories attest. Judging by the drawings in those daybooks, he was no tattoo virtuoso, nor is it clear he stuck with the hobby for very long. There’s a record of him tattooing blue dots — probably as an identification marker — on members of the Little Rock-based Hamilton family, one of whom, nicknamed “Suda,” would eventually become his wife.
So how did a landlocked-for-life tattoo novice like Musser get his hands on a world-class vestige of tattoo history, and who painted it? Nobody really knows, and it’s not for lack of trying. Bray and York consulted museum experts in Boston, London and Tokyo. Historians in Newcastle and New York weighed in. A paper conservator from the Harvard Library conducted fiber microscopy on the book and found that it had been bound with silk typical of a Japanese woman’s workaday kimono. “We were interested in the materials,” Bray said, “and all signs pointed to Japan. Traditional side-stitch binding, meant to be read from back to front.” About four or five such books exist in the world, Bray said, two of which have never left Japan. “For whatever reason, the examples aren’t known or they just didn’t survive. The material hasn’t surfaced.”
“It’s bizarre,” York said. “The fact that some random dude in Arkansas had it.” They questioned whether it had belonged to Musser at all, but the scattershot prices added in pen next to each of the paintings appear to match Musser’s handwriting, and a dagger design from the Japanese book appears in Musser’s journal.
When all was said and done, York bought the thing from Welch, along with a few other items of Musser’s — the fountain pens, the daybooks, a photo of Musser. Holding the 130-year-old silk book, York said, blew him away. His favorite of the bunch is a battle royale — “an eagle fighting a dragon fighting a snake.”
“It was surreal,” he said. He had a short bout of buyer’s remorse. “I was like, ‘Fuck.’ ‘Cause it was during quarantine and some shit, and I was like, ‘This is the dumbest move. This is the biggest waste of money. I’m just gonna buy this book and put it in my closet and not do anything with it.’ ”
Luckily, that didn’t happen. Designs from the book can be spotted on the arms of York’s clients via his Instagram feed and in “Floating West,” which came out Oct. 14 and shows the paintings in full. It’s the second title from Rake House, a small press Bray co-founded to specialize in “deeply researched and well-written books about tattoo history.” And Welch, during a trip down to Texas to shore up the sale, ended up asking York to tattoo a blue dot on her hand, similar to the one her grandfather had imprinted on her grandmother in Little Rock in the 1910s, around the time the Meiji era of Japan was nearing an end.
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