Pioneered in the early 20th century, American tattooing first took off in carnival and circus circuits before working its way into mainstream artmaking. That history is chronicled in “Expert Tattooing in the Midwest,” an exhibit at the Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science.
Tattoo artist Clint Vaught, who owns Crescent City Tattoo & Museum above River City Coffee & Goods at 223 Main St, has spent the past six years researching regional tattooists, befriending industry legends, publishing books about tattoo history, and amassing an impressive collection of original lithographs and rare, century-old tattoo machines. Peppered throughout the displays are sheets of iconic flash art, which were small stencils and drawings on paper.
“Flash sheets would draw people to see a circus show,” Vaught says. Over time, flash sheets were adapted to showcase an individual artist’s work.
The displays tell the story of tattooing’s evolution from carnival act to legitimate profession. Displays include a Dec. 28, 1935, issue of [Billboard] magazine, which featured traveling tattooists; biographical information on early regional artists; catalogs of Zeis Studio designs; and early tattoo stencils that used graphite to define outlines.
Among Vaught’s most treasured items on display are the 40 flash sheets attributed to early tattooist and central Kentucky resident W.R. King, including the only known matching set of King’s flash paintings. Also cherished is a 1961 photograph of King and Bedford, Indiana, tattooist Mike Huff, whom Vaught has spent years researching.
“Expert Tattooing in the Midwest” is open during the museum’s regular hours. At 1 p.m. each Saturday through August, Vaught leads a tour through the exhibit and discusses the stories behind his research and collection.