The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo


The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo | New Exhibition

Opening January 29 | Included with $12 Admission

“There is something about tattooing which I cannot explain… and why so many people have it done I don’t know. It may be vain, but I find it fascinating and very useful in traveling. Every symbol and every design made up of symbols has a meaning. These on my body, for instance, are mementos featuring incidents of my life and travels. Then, too,
in every country where tattooing is practiced a tattooed person who is able to tattoo needs to further introduction to the natives, be they civilized or uncivilized, or even barbaric and cannibalistic.” —GUS WAGNER

The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo explores Augustus “Gus” Wagner’s (American, 1872-1941) early life as a merchant seaman and tattoo artist who traveled the world from 1898-1902, and his return to the United States as a professional tattooist and tattooed man.

Gus Wagner was born in 1872 in Marietta, Ohio, a trading and boat building town on the Ohio River. At age twelve he saw his first heavily tattooed man, “Captain Costentenus the Greek Albanian,” in a traveling show. In his 20’s, he set out as an itinerant salesman and laborer. In 1897 he boarded the cargo steamer Bellona at Newport News, Virginia, thus embarking on a four-year career as a merchant seaman. By traveling around the world, Gus Wagner got to know many seaports: Vera Cruz, London, Cape Town, Sydney, Auckland, Honolulu, New York, San Francisco, and others. It was during this time that he discovered the art of tattooing.

By 1901 Gus reportedly had 264 tattoos of his own, (and over 800 by 1908) allowing him to promote himself as “the most artistically marked up man in America.”

The exhibition will familiarize viewers with hand tattoo techniques, and make the case for the importance of researching, documenting, and preserving tattoo collections in museums and research institutes.

Most of the artifacts are not on view due to their fragile condition and conservation needs. The reproductions and video projection in the exhibition are a testimony of the richness of Gus Wagner’s image vocabulary, his life and artistic influences, and a relatively unknown area of American history during the period from the 1890s to the 1930s.

Please join us by making a designated gift for care and conservation of the Alan Govenar and Kaleta Doolin Tattoo Collection Fund.

Exhibition is included with admission. Click the button below to purchase museum tickets.

Opening reception is on January 28, 6-8pm. Click the button below to RSVP. Registration Required.


By subway: 2, 3, 4, 5, A, C, J, Z to Fulton Street station
Bus: M15, M15-SBS to Fulton Street. Downtown Connection to Pearl Street and Fulton Street.

*As we are located in an historic district please contact the museum regarding accessibility needs prior to your visit