An interview with tattoo artist pioneer Ruth Marten

Leave a Comment

 

Ethyl Eichelberger by Peter Hujar

Ethyl Eichelberger by Peter Hujar

Discovering Marten’s work occurred while looking at Peter Hujar’s stunning photograph of the late 70s downtown New York drag queen Ethyl Eichelberger. The black and white photograph shows Eichelberger with her back to the camera displaying a beautiful large tattoo on her back of an angel in a naive style. This tattoo looked like nothing I’d ever seen before for that time period so I decided to do a little research into its origins. It didn’t take me long to discover that artist Ruth Marten had made the tattoo and was an established fixture on the punk art scene in New York at the time tattooing many well known personalities. Besides from the individuals that she tattooed she also created live tattoo art performances which coincided with the likes of Punk Art exhibition. While trying to research more about this unusually original practice of merging the space of art display and body modification for a time like the late 70s I found almost no information except for images of her current work as an illustrator. Tracking down her email address we were however lucky enough that Marten agreed to create a small interview with us about her experiences during this fascinating period of tattoo history. 
.
Ruth Marten, Tattoos on Helen Wheels, Photo by Rob Grodma

Ruth Marten, Tattoos on Helen Wheels, Photo by Rob Grodma

.
Why and how did tattooing develop as a medium of your choice?
.
After Art School I realized that I was completely unprepared for financial self support, enthusiasm aside. As drawing was my passion and as I had already received a tattoo from Buddy in Newport, R.I.  (a real Sailor shop with tons of flash on the wall), I naively assumed that I could have my own such sovereign scene. Supplied with a loan from my Father, I bought a kit from Huck Spaulding which was pretty simple and went hunting for brave and foolish clients, known in the trade as “potatoes”. It was a pittance of a living but it brought into my life many interesting people, people who wanted tattoos for a myriad of reasons and provided me with an education about the human urge to self decorate.
.
Can you explain what your live tattoo performances were?
The tattoo performance occurred as a result of a flowering of interest in performance in the 1980 ’s Art World. Had I been wiser I would have skipped this episode as I really had no idea about what I was doing and needed to leave it to the practitioners who did. Once was enough.
.
How did the art world at the time perceive your decision to place the performance of tattooing in an art space?
The Art World is a non discriminating whore.
.
Were you aware of trends within tattooing at the time and do you feel your work reflected the imagery and placement that people were imbedding onto their skin at the time?
I embarked upon this pursuit in 1973 in a New York wherein Women and Gay folk were agitating for recognition and we were sorting out issues of social justice and human relations. The City was gritty and dangerous, rents in the East Village were $69 a month and you could do anything you wanted as long as you kept your wits about you. Elsewhere in the Country, Don Ed Hardy, Cliff Raven and Mike Malone were tattooing with an heroic vision, introducing large scale Japanese inspired designs (formerly strictly Yakuza) and opening the craft to vivid designs formerly inconceivable. If you keep in mind the esoteric nature of research in this pre-computer era, we are talking about haunting out of print bookshops (still do) and mining the museums. I had a plan to include fine art and indigenous art from Polynesia to the typical fare and actually had the chutzpah to contact Marcia Tucker, then Curator of Modern Art at the Whitney Museum, in what seemed to me to be an eminently reasonable plan to tattoo Collectors with the designs of their favorite Artists as in a Hockney on the back of Henry Geldzahler. Marcia knew better but became a client anyway, specializing in snakes, which she feared. The 70’s were a sexy time and tattoo placement was an opportunity to express that feeling and to expand beyond the “patch” or “band-aid” affect. Clients became bolder with their imaginations resulting in wrap around torso designs and, also, humor. Socially there were new ideas to identify with and the tattoos to accompany these.
Ruth Marten working on her installation, Punk Art Exhibition, Washington DC, 1978
.
I’ve read that you were influenced by ethnic traditions within body modification, what were these references and how important were they to your work?
.
Time spent in such an interesting world naturally leads to a certain amount of scholarship. Starting with the western canon of sailing ships, roses, black panthers and daggers, the progression, via the accounts of Captain Cook, is to Polynesia where the word tattoo originated and the practice much remarked upon. Marquesan Island tattoos were bold and extensive bandings, Maori were gorgeous designs concocted to create fear in their enemies. This kind of ritualized social marking is irresistible and I fell hard. I did promote designs that created similar geometrical effects, though these were devoid of the kind of symbolism found in lore of the Pacific Islanders. I was western as were my clients so the appreciation was aesthetic. This type of tattoo design has come to be called Neo-Tribalism; I wasn’t the only practitioner thus enamored, but I certainly was part of the celebration. The truth is, when someone comes to you for a tattoo, you are executing their dream and that always comes first, whatever your inclinations.
.
Ruth Marten and creating a man Ray inspired tattoo
.
How popular was it to be tattooed at the time of your practice in New York?
.
Tattooing was wonderfully louche in the early 70’s and those of us attracted to it enjoyed the outlaw status it conferred. In New York it actually was illegal as the result of a hepatitis outbreak that was ultimately pinned to a Coney Island practitioner. A rare sighting of a tattooed person (not a sailor or a tough) was cause for a chase down and exchange viewing of decorated flesh. It was that rare! I find it re- markable that it has become a right of passage now and look forward to a tattooed President, male or female, who will hopefully get things back on track.
.
Ethyl's back piece

Ruth Marten, Tattoos on Ethyl Eichelberger, Photo by Stanley Stellar

.
What is the story behind Ethel Eichelberger’s back piece?
Ethyl Eichelberger was a sublime creature, an invention of imagination and courage who left prematurely but left his mark, certainly. He came to me with a drawing in hand done by my fellow artist friend, Ken Tisa of a wacky dancer with twirling scarves. Ethyl requested it to be tattooed over his large back and, it became an important element in his dramatic monologues from the Greek. He would build up the drama and then turn his body, drop his costume and reveal the design. Ken and I, sitting in the audience, shared an exquisite moment, honored by the vision of this extraordinary man.
.
Could you tell us about the individuals that you tattooed?
Were I to name names, I would be trod ding on people’s privacy. I will give you some anecdotes, though, as it is so interesting. I was tattooing concurrent with the Gay Liberation era so I had many fabulous gay clients who were using tattoos to express their most libidinous fantasies. Giant Phoenixes emerging above the belt, Grecian scenes, interspecies love making, you name it. Lots of fun before the party ended. I was working during the Punk scene and creating lots of nihilistic tattoos like bar codes and the early typographic designs. I tattooed art lovers (Mondrian, Art Nouveau), animal lovers (Dinosaur scenes with erupting volcanoes, etc.) and other culture lovers (Aztec, Japanese, Chinese, Maori). Everything and anything.
You can see Ruth’s current artwork here.
Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


seven − 1 =