Native American Bodywork’s Influence on Tattoo Art

One of the earliest items in the “Tattooed New York” exhibit are these mezzotints from 1710. They feature portraits of four Mohawk and Mohican leaders. The “Tattooed New York” exhibit has a number of representations of Native American tattoos. (Photo by Leeanne Root for Indian Country Media Network)

Tattooed New York, an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, features numerous works showing how Native American body art influenced the development of body art over the past few centuries, reports Leeanne Root in Indian Country Media Network.

Among the earliest items featured in the Tattooed New York exhibition are the New-York Historical Society’s Four Indian Kings mezzotints from 1710, which feature portraits of Mohawk and Mohican tribal leaders who traveled to London seeking military aid against the French and their Ojibwe allies.

“Gawkers lined London’s streets. Queen Anne held a reception at St. James’s Palace. Everyone in England, it seemed, wanted to glimpse the three Mohawks and one Mohican popularly known as the ‘Four Indian Kings,’” another section of the historical society’s presentation explains. “To the British, the four chiefs were an exotic curiosity, simultaneously praised and scorned as ‘noble savages.’” The portraits of them are by John Verelst, those and later prints of the paintings are some of the earliest images showing Native American tattoos. Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, who was chief of the Maquas (or Mohawks) is seen in the portrait with black linear patterns covering his chest and lower face.

Although images such as a 1706 pictograph of a Seneca trader’s serpent and bird tattoos are represented, the images are seen through a European lens, Root notes. Furthermore,

Those images were often “skewed by an eagerness to sensationalize exotic ‘savages’ or embellished to excite readers and increase book sales,” notes a placard at the exhibit.

Go to Indian Country Media Network to read more about how Native Americans created their tattoos, and to read about different examples of Native American body art in the exhibit, which runs through April 30.

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