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Skin & Bones at the Independence Seaport Museum


Every sailor’s tattoo tells a story; a story of years spent toiling the vast emptiness of sea, of traveling to exotic lands, and interacting with different cultures. A sailor’s tattoo isSkin and Bones protection against rogue waves and vengeful weather. It identifies who you are as a person, yet symbolizes that you belong to an ancient fraternity of seamen and merchants, men who never quite identified themselves as land dwellers and seek adventure in the strangeness of our world.

That’s the message behind Skin & Bones, the new exhibition open at Independence Seaport Museum through January 3rd 2010. Skin & Bones chronicles the history of sailors and body art, and their influence in the spread of tattoo culture in America. Curator Craig Bruns, who came up with the idea and collected items from more than half a dozen museums, hopes to shed some light on the mysteries of tattooing, and allow people to gain a better understanding of how important a role body art played in the life of a sailor.

“When you think of sailors during war period, they’re usually young, ripped from their mother’s breakfast tables. All of a sudden they’re around guys they don’t know, assigned to a ship, and the first order of business is to get to know people,” says Craig. “Part of the male bonding ritual is to get drunk and get a tattoo. It might seem like there’s no meaning, but in reality, there’s a very deep meaning to it.”

The exhibition explores many of the myths and superstitions that surround a sailor’s tattoos; for instance, did you know that the traditional swallow tattoo, representing 5,000  miles at sea, is a trophy identifying a real man of the sea? Or that a pig tattooed on your left foot and a rooster tattooed on your right serves as a talisman that will protect you from drowning at sea?

Many famous artists are featured throughout the exhibition, such as Sailor Jerry Collins. A WWII veteran, Sailor Jerry developed his unique style while stationed in Hawaii by combining Eastern and Western designs. Also featured, local legend Sailor Eddie Evans came to the Philadelphia area in the 1950s and made a reputation for himself as the best tattoo artist on the east coast for over three decades. His grandson, affectionately known as Sailor Eddie Junior, still designs body art in the style of his grandfather at his own shop on Girard Ave.

Skin & Bones offers an interesting glimpse into the mystique of tattoo culture. By the time you leave, you’ll no doubt want to rush out and have a little bit of your own story imprinted on your body to share with the world. Before you do, make sure you stop by the exhibit’s Tattoo-A-Tron, where a grizzled old sailor will give you the classic anchor or ode to mom via digital projection.