The Baltimore Tattoo Museum offers free tours to the public seven days a week, after the tour guests are encouraged to purchase a museum T-shirt or perhaps a more permanent souvenir.
The unique museum and tattoo parlor is located on Eastern Ave. in Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood, a few blocks from the city’s Inner Harbor.
“We focus on American electric tattooing,” said Chris Keaton, a tattoo artist and one of the museums founders. “From the beginning when Thomas Edison had the patents for engraving machines.”
The museum, established 1999, is dedicated to showcasing all things related to the history of tattooing. The crimson red walls of the building are covered with framed hand painted designs and art from in house artists and tattooing greats that have left their mark on the history of the art form.
After Edison created the first engraving machine, “Thomas O’Reilly switched it up to make it specifically for tattooing, and we try to have stuff from then up till now,” said Keaton, standing next to a glass display case filled with tattooing machines from years past.
The relatively plain tan and green exterior of the museum belies its truly unique and extraordinary contents. Glass double doors open into the main reception area and the two adjacent rooms showcase the historical tattoo art and showpieces the founders have collected over the years of its operation. Branching off of these rooms are several private tattoo and piercing studios, where artists conduct customer consultations and perform the actual tattoo work.
Prior to the 1980s tattooing was not a celebrated art form, and only recently has it become mainstream. In years gone by when a prolific tattoo artist died it was not uncommon for all of their stuff to just be pitched in the trash, said artist Adam Jeffreys.
For reasons like this it has become difficult to collect pieces with historical significance for the museum Jeffreys said. The museum’s walls feature hand painted pieces of art, called flash, from famous tattoo artists like Norman Keith Collins, also known as Sailor Jerry, who made his name, tattooing sailors in Hawaii during the 1930s.
Some of the Sailor Jerry original flash pieces displayed at the museum are valued at several thousand dollars, and have become highly sought after and collectable for people associated with the tattooing culture.
Sailor Jerry, and similar artists who would share and repurpose each other’s designs in the early years pioneered much of the style seen today in modern tattoo art.
Evidence of this inspiration can be noted in the art styles of all six artists working at the Baltimore Tattoo Museum.
“In the early days people would steal designs from each other, design their own flash and be like traveling carneys,” said Keaton.
The repurposing of tattoo designs in the early days of the art form helped to spread images and common themes. It was not uncommon for Sailor Jerry to tattoo the same anchor or cross cannons imagery onto the biceps of multiple U.S. sailors on a given day. This is why his work became so prolific, said Jeffreys.
There are stories of Jerry tattooing all 200 members of a graduating U.S. Navy class in a single weekend, said Jefferys.
Back then the repurposing of common images was not necessarily looked down upon, said Keaton. “It was the nature of the beast at that point. Everybody did it.”
Today the typical tattoo parlor clientele are looking for more custom work. Some people still come in and select an image off the flash wall, but most want something unique to them, and the copying of designs is discouraged.
“Now-a-days with people doing fine art tattoos, they might get upset with people copying,” said Keaton. “But if you take a picture of it and it’s on the Internet people steal it if they like it.”
The museum features six different artists and the occasional guest artist all with varying styles, so clients are sure to find someone who they will like. Tattoo work starts at $50 for a small image on the leg or arm, and goes up to $150-per-hour for custom sleeve work.
“We make nice designs and we try to personable,” said Keaton. “Everybody has a choice these days. There are a lot of tattoo shops out there and a lot of good artists. We just try to make it as comfortable and as nice of an experience as possible and try to give you a nice looking tattoo.”
The shop and museum is open seven days a week. Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.