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Indelible Ink: Trust and Mystery Tattooing at the New York Historical Society

By Madison Bloom
May 25, 2017
Unless otherwise specified, all photos © Frank Maresca
Unless otherwise specified, all photos © Frank Maresca

How did I get here? I’m reclined on a black leather medical chair. A halo of fluorescent light hovers above me like a probing, robotic eye. To my right stands a mob. “How did you get here?” they ask. “Does it hurt?”

To my left, a hulking Turkish man named Burak Moreno is restraining my arm and puncturing it with a series of needles. I’m being tattooed by a stranger… in a museum. The visitors surrounding me ask: “what are you getting?”

My answer is simple: “I don’t know.” 


It’s the final day of “Tattooed New York,” the body art retrospective at Manhattan’s New-York Historical Society. During the 12-week exhibition, renowned New York artists have tattooed dozens of living canvases, lending a voyeuristic aspect to the exchange between tattoo artist and client.

Despite popular misconception, the subjects weren’t walk-ins from the street, but clients chosen by the artists themselves. I was lucky to be the exception; I had no prior professional relationship with Moreno, or his Brooklyn shop Fleur Noire Tattoo Parlour. Our paths first crossed through NYHS curator Cristian Petru Panaite.


When he e-introduced us, the plan was simple. I would request a design and the artist would draft it up for the big day. But upon seeing Moreno’s dark, striking work, a precarious idea crept up from my belly: what if the artist chose the design, and I didn’t see it until it was finished and inked on me forever…? Between hesitation and intrigue, all parties agreed.


A few days before the demonstration, I was at a friend’s family home for dinner, explaining my venture to her dismayed father. “How can you know what you are going to like in 10, 20 years?” he pried, adding that tattoos “are a form of mutilation, they represent the arrogance of youth.”


Reactions are split in two groups: those who find me irreverent and rash and those who find me preciously insane. Even Petru Panaite admitted that he was nervous about my proposal. “Getting something that permanent on your skin should not be taken lightly.”


But I wouldn’t be the first to dabble in surprise tattoos. In 2015, celebrity tattoo artist Scott Campbell premiered his “Whole Glory” installation—during which participants sat by a fence and deposited an arm through a “glory hole,” leading to Campbell on the other side. He thus tattooed limbs with whatever designs he fancied, free of charge. The volunteer couldn’t see the tattoo until it was fully inked and irrevocable. No communication was allowed. Campbell wanted a blank, passive canvas—a vehicle for his purest expression.


I was unaware of Campbell’s project until days before my session, and noted the differences in approach. There was empathy inherent to Moreno and my process, and while I was leaving the design entirely up to him, I did determine its tone. After he’d accepted my challenge, I pointed out the five pieces from his portfolio I liked best, and sent him two lists. One was a series of visuals I’m drawn to: the nude female figure, Egon Schiele, Hans Bellmer’s doll… The second was a litany of designs I did not want: dolphins, flowers, religious iconography, flames, words, or anything “cutesy.”


Indelible Ink


Sitting in Fleur Noire in Williamsburg, a mild illness befell me. It was the day before the demonstration, and I couldn’t distinguish nausea from excitement. Moreno had insisted we meet at least once before the demonstration, if only to lockdown tattoo size and placement. He showed me a blank paper stencil cut in an irregular shape—something like a shriveled guitar—and rested it on the soft flesh above my left elbow. “No skulls, right?” I asked with sheepish humor, remarking anxiously that the stencil was larger than I’d expected.


“No skulls,” he confirmed. “But, I must warn you: it’s a little bit morbid… little bit naked.” Moreno looked severe; his shaved head and coarse black beard suggested a surly mobster, but his eyes conveyed only concern. “Are you sure you don’t want to see the design?”


“Positive,” I said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”


On Saturday, April 29, I arrive at the New-York Historical Society tremendously unprepared, having had no coffee and eaten only a measly granola bar. Weary and disheveled, I’m about to alter my body forever.


Inside the exhibit, Moreno is setting up his tools methodically. This process takes roughly an hour, its slowness adding a ceremonial weight to the day. When he finally gestures for me to lie down, a crowd has gathered. Ascending the fenced platform I feel like a white-robed virgin being offered for ritual sacrifice. I settle into the chair and snicker faintly—though I’m far from an exhibitionist, it begins to sink in that I’m getting tattooed… in an exhibition. Moreno’s tattoo gun switches on, buzzing serenely. “You ready?” he asks. I nod.


I’d forgotten how little it hurts. The pulsing, hot scratch becomes hypnotic, and the fear of pain dissolves. I feel tranquil—sure of myself. Slowly I realize that my challenge will not be the needle, but ignoring the facial expressions of my audience; reading into them could prove stressful. Petru Panaite is pacing around me, looking tightly wound. I’ve decided he thinks I’m a lunatic.


Indelible Ink


“You’re not going to go crazy if you don’t like it, right?” he laughs nervously.


Moreno and I take breaks every hour. He smokes, and I refrain from peeking at my arm. The event is lively, more like an eccentric party than a clinical demonstration. The spectators are engaged and kind, making the first half of the session near blissful. I later learn that this was not the case for Moreno. “The first 10 minutes were weirdly stressful. I mean you’re in a very respected museum in New York, tattooing someone who has no idea what she is getting.” Adding, “but in 10 minutes I found myself comfortable and very excited about the piece.”


Moreno’s confidence grows as mine retreats. By break three I’m on the edge of delirium. I haven’t eaten in hours. The coffee I downed during the last break has stoked more anxiety than alertness. I dismount the chair and face the one direction Moreno told me to avoid. I see the iPad displaying my tattoo design.


I glimpse an enormous, bold drawing that belongs in a comic book. Its muscle-bound heroine is part Wonder Woman, part Ridley Scott alien. She’s framed in jagged black edges that suggest the word “POW!” I’ve seen the image—already carved into my flesh—and I hate it.


A quiet panic envelops me. I begin to hear every tap on every phone taking my picture. Each whisper is amplified to a roar. Formerly benign, smiling faces grimace wickedly. What have I done? The words of my friend’s father drift back to me: “the arrogance of youth.”


I weigh my options. Stopping now wouldn’t make sense; the design is mostly finished, save for some shading. I reckon it’s better to have a finished tattoo I don’t like than a partial one. Regardless, this was my absurd idea, and I’d have to suffer the absurd consequences.


Indelible Ink


I decide to treat the tattoo like a Christmas present from an unhip aunt. I remember the time I was gifted a bread maker as a 12-year-old. “Oh! A bread maker! I’ve always wanted a bread maker!” I could do this.


Moreno senses my sudden shift in temperament. “I’m scared. What if you hate it?” he asks. We laugh. It is not funny.


As we near the tattoo’s completion, I encounter an unforeseen dilemma: I don’t know how to reveal the tattoo to… myself. I stare at Moreno, blurring out the crowd around me. Terrified, I ask if he could wrap my arm so I could look alone in the bathroom. But the buzz of the audience is too expectant. They chatter and gasp. Photos are rapidly snapped. Intuitively, Moreno offers me a handheld mirror, which I take to a far corner of the platform.


“Fuck it,” I think. I glance into the mirror with one eye shut, as if this will negate the she-monster I saw earlier. But there is no buxom beast in sight, nothing cartoonish or jagged—only delicate, sketchy fragments surrounding a portly, bare-breasted woman. She cries, and bleeds, and looks downward at unknown suffering. She is beautiful.


As someone who’s never been interested in getting tattoos tied to personal narrative, it feels strangely poetic that I will spend the rest of my life extracting meaning from this one. The design is weightless in a way—not tied to a memory, but to a mutual display of trust.


Days later, I asked Moreno what he really thought when I first made my request.


“It’s a very brave and unusual decision,” he said. “When someone trusts you completely the stakes go up. I gave all my energy and devotion to this design.”


Petru Panaite, who was tattooed at the museum weeks before me, then offered a proposition of his own. “Let’s check in on each other’s tattoos five or 10 years from now and see how we feel about them,” he said.


Challenge accepted.


Indelible Ink