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Tattoo exhibit in Greenport tells LIers’ stories

Crystal Keller, 26, of Southold, started getting tattoos

Crystal Keller, 26, of Southold, started getting tattoos when she was 18. She has covered up some of the tattoos that she has outgrown. Credit: Courtesy of East End Seaport Museum & Marine Foundation

Thomas LaMothe doesn’t often think of the once red (now faded) rose tattooed on his right arm.

He got it done in San Antonio a few days after his 18th birthday while stationed there with the U.S. Air Force Security Police School after he saw someone else in his squadron with fresh ink.

He wanted a tattoo and chose the rose in homage to his grandfather, whom he admired and who had the same tattoo in the same spot.

But the years went by and the now 53-year-old Greenport resident and pastor at the First Baptist Church of Greenport said he rarely thought about it. That is, until last summer when his grandsons, then 3 and 5, turned up with temporary tattoos on their right arms.

“It took a few minutes to realize that they were, quite consciously, imitating me,” LaMothe said as part of the exhibit “Tattoo: Art of the Sailor,” featured at the East End Seaport Museum & Marine Foundation in Greenport. “I could have marveled at the swift passage of time, but instead rejoiced in the divine grace that has allowed me to love, and be loved, by these precious boys.”

It was that memory that made LaMothe -- like many others in the Greenport area -- elect to be included in the exhibit, which details the history of tattooing, its place in maritime history and the personal stories of nearly 20 mostly local people with tattoos.

Keith McCamy, who helped curate the exhibit with his wife, Arden Scott, said the idea came from a similar exhibit at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia two years ago, with the theme “If you have a tattoo, thank a sailor.”

“The link between American maritime history and tattooing is relevant to us,” McCamy said. “Because we’re a tiny museum in a small town, we wanted to get the local narratives.”

McCamy said the Philadelphia museum has an archive of American tattoos, to which the 17 people featured in the Greenport exhibit will be added.

The exhibit, as researched by Scott, who taught maritime history at Southampton College, says tattooing can be traced to 3500 BC, but was brought into the American sphere of consciousness by British Capt. James Cook, who discovered the art in Tahiti in the mid-1700s.

With his discovery, and also the fact that Tahitian tattoos were a symbol of the elite, tattoos became customary in the British Navy, a tradition passed on to the American Navy (but not before influencing the English royals -- noted in the exhibit are Queen Victoria, Lady Randolph Churchill and her son, Sir Winston Churchill).

The oldest tattoo on the walls of the Greenport exhibit is of sailor Tom Sharkey, who was born in Ireland and went on to become a cabin boy on a ship leaving the docks from his hometown. In 1892, he ended up in New York and joined the U.S. Navy and was deployed to Hawaii. There, he began a professional boxing career as “Sailor Tom” because of his tattoo of a nautical star over a full-rigged ship.

Sharkey’s photo and his story came to the exhibit from Greenport resident Brigid Sharkey McMahon, whose grandfather was Sharkey’s nephew.

Many of those featured in the exhibit trace their tattoos to the Navy. Among them is Verna Petty Fitzpatrick, 80, of Southold, who has a small butterfly on her upper arm.

Fitzpatrick said she got her tattoo in 1970 when a friend in the Marines had one done. But the real reason she got it, she said, was to connect with her father, who didn’t have a tattoo but was in the Navy during World War I.

“I wanted to have a connection with him in that way,” she said. “Because most Navy people had it.”

The people featured in the exhibit tell stories that run the gamut, including a woman who got a tattoo after her husband and high school sweetheart left her; an artist who turned to his own skin as canvas; and a 26-year-old woman from Southold who started getting tattoos at 18 and covers up some of the old ones as she outgrows them.

“I love the concept,” said Greenport Mayor David Nyce, whose story is part of the exhibit. He had his first tattoo -- a hand holding a heart -- inked on his left shoulder blade in 1991, when tattooing was still illegal in New York City.

“They’re personal, the story of your first tattoo and why you got it," he said. "Some people go way far with it, which is great and it’s body art, and some people just have a single symbol, and for them that is just as meaningful.”

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