Pittsburgh’s newest art museum keeps the tradition of American tattooing alive – 71Bait

American tattoos have come a long way since the art form originated on the arms of sailors and circus performers. Today, teachers, doctors, and people from all walks of life wear designs to honor people, places, and things. A new museum in Shadyside pays homage to the history between these two periods.

The Pittsburgh Tattoo Art Museum opened in March in a basement store on Walnut Street. In the exhibition, visitors will find artifacts formerly owned by Percy Waters, Bert Grimm and Lew Alberts. These names may not be as well known as Picasso, Andy Warhol, or Salvador Dalí, but their legacy is just as great in the American tattoo world.

The space — part museum, part tattoo shop — is the brainchild of Nick Ackman, a veteran tattoo artist who spent time in cities across the US before settling in Bellevue with his partner Jill Krznaric. Both Ackman and Krznaric tattoo at the back of the store.

Ackman’s vast collection of tattoo machines, flash sheets dotted with 19th-century motifs, letters, photographs and other memorabilia is legendary. Only about a fifth of his collection fits in the museum showcases.

Courtesy of Nick Ackman


Courtesy of Nick Ackman

Among the items in Ackman’s collection that are still on display at the museum is this 1920s tattoo machine. It was made in Pittsburgh by JG Russell for traveling circus and sideshow tattoo artist Fred Clark.

“People kept asking me to see my collection and all of that, but going through everything and … the way I’d put things away or locked them away just doesn’t do it,” Ackman said. “That’s why I thought about having a room for years.”

But the timing was never right. Then last year at an antique store that was closing in Canonsburg, Krznaric found a dozen display cases for sale and the couple needed a place to put them. After checking out two rooms, they settled on the basement store next to kawaii gifts.

It fits. Tattooing has spent so much of its history underground – too taboo for mainstream American culture.

“We made some jokes about it,” Ackman said. “I think it’s quite nice that we’re kind of tucked away off the road and people have to search for it a bit.”

Once you find the place and head inside, you’ll likely be greeted by music and the hum of tattoo machines. Every inch of the space, right down to the display cases, is designed to fit Ackman and Krznaric’s vision. Most of the cases were made in Pittsburgh during the 1920s and 1940s, the same era as many of the items they own. Another display is on an old tattoo workstation from a St. Louis store.

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Katie Blackley


90.5 WESA

Nick Ackman stands behind a display case full of memorabilia. The case sits on top of an old tattoo workstation where the artist kept machines and needles by color.

Ackman has always had an affinity with the traditional style of American tattoos. The style is characterized by bold, clean lines and highly saturated colors. Many purists live and are characterized by one sentence: “Bold will hold”.

“We both like traditional imagery, and we both like historical imagery… Even when we draw things, it’s influenced by the historical imagery and the collection of things that we have,” Ackman said. “We want people to come in and get traditional tattoos.”

And they have. Both Ackman and Krznaric have focused their work entirely on the traditional American style.

“I feel like every day I come here and I just make designs where I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I’m making one! I can’t believe I’m doing another one of these!’” Krznaric said of tattooing traditional designs. “And it’s stuff I’ve always wanted to do.”

Ackman is a source of information on how tattooing developed in America. He has written seven books on various tattoo icons published by his own Blue Letter Books. The museum’s inaugural exhibitions focus on these seven books. Visitors can learn more about each article by viewing one of Ackman’s publications.

But the shop also has curios like tattoo magazines; Permits giving the green light to tattoos for teenagers of yesteryear; and schematics for tattoo machines from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

After perusing about half a dozen cases, visitors gain a better understanding of the culture of the time. According to Ackman, tattoo artists designed their flashsheets to include images of the day.

“I really love that you can look at the tattoo designs of a specific place and time and you can tell a lot about what the wants and needs of the people in that place are,” he said. “It is the art of the people.”

Many of the items in his collection date from the early 20th century. During this time a lot was tattooed near military bases or in traveling circuses. Because the cases are from the same period, the viewer is transported through time by reading the cards about a style, accessory store, or a specific artist.

The collection is also brimming with stories from the military, the circus, and old Hollywood. Krznaric argues that everyone could find something in the collection that appeals to them.

“You may not be interested in tattoos, and that’s okay. But you might find old magazine covers and illustrations and advertisements and things like that,” she said. “Even just the story, a lot of it is soldier tattoos.”

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Courtesy of Nick Ackman


Courtesy of Nick Ackman

A sheet with drawings by the tattoo artist Ned Resinol. According to Ackman, Resinol was tattooing in Pittsburgh in the 1940s. The sheet originated in a later phase of Resinol’s career in Los Angeles.

Since only 20% of his collection can be on display at any one time, Ackman plans to rotate the exhibits about every six months. He hopes to unveil new displays alongside new releases that provide the backstory for each new item.

Among his many boxes at home, Ackman has many items associated with Pittsburgh. A vintage JG Russell tattoo machine and flash sheets that sailor Ned Resinol created while in town are among the treasures Ackman plans to display at an upcoming exhibition.

“Pittsburgh itself has a really beautiful history of tattooing,” Ackman said. “I have an envelope of this [Jack Wills, who spent time in Pittsburgh in the 1920s] sent to tattoo artist Fred Marquand. And I’m pretty sure the address is 9 Federal [Street], so it would have been across from the ballpark that’s down there now. The old block is completely gone.”

Tattoo museums aren’t particularly common, although you can find them in other parts of the US, such as the United States. B. the Daredevil Tattoo Shop in New York City and the legendary Tattoo Archive in North Carolina. It has always been up to tattoo artists and their families to preserve the legacies and artifacts of American greats like “Prof” Milton Zeis, Fred Marquand and Harry Warren.

Ackman said he was considering moving some of his collection to a more traditional museum, but worried that fine art curators might not be able to manage the pieces as well as he did. Many pieces came to him through a chain of tattoo artists or a family member of the artist who originally owned the machine, stencil or flash.

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Courtesy of Nick Ackman


Courtesy of Nick Ackman

A photo of Ned Resinol in the 1980s. Resinol was tattooed in Pittsburgh in the 1940’s.

“I used to write emails [to fine art museums] and asked if they were interested in a tattoo show, but never got an answer,” Ackman said.

Ackman does not aim to make tattoos a sophisticated art form. He likes the taboo that still surrounds the culture.

“I don’t think tattooing needs to be exposed to a level where everyone knows everything about it,” he said. “I like that it’s magical and mysterious and different and all those things.”

If you want to learn more about tattoos, the heavyweights of the industry and a bit of American history, all you have to do is stop by the shop and look around.

The Pittsburgh Tattoo Art Museum is open Thursday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Admission is free, but a suggested donation of $5 goes towards the preservation and restoration of the collection.

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