This full sleeve tattoo was created by Adam Montegut, co-founder of the New Orleans Tattoo Museum — Photo courtesy of Adam Montegut / New Orleans Tattoo Museum
“Tattoos are the signature of your soul,” says Don “Doc” Lucas, 60, a veteran tattoo artist and co-founder with artist Adam Montegut of the newly opened New Orleans Tattoo Museum. “Tattoos show who you are, what you’ve done and where you’ve been.”
The 2,000-square-foot museum on Martin Luther King Boulevard at Oretha Castle Haley in Central City was conceived as a welcoming hub – a place for practicing artists and enthusiasts to learn about the history of tattooing, its place in New Orleans and where the art form is today.
Flash from Paul Rogers, the father of American tattooing, from Lucas' collection at the New Orleans Tattoo Museum — Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono
The museum walls are adorned with some of Lucas’ impressive collection of flash, sheets of historic tattoos from the likes of legendary tattoo artists including Paul Rogers and Doc Webb.
There are cases filled with fierce-looking instruments, glass negatives and photos of tattooed men and women who traveled in sideshows as painted attractions. Examples of tribal tattoo track the art to far-flung places like Borneo and New Zealand.
Lucas, who has written some 13 books on tattooing and tattoo artists, is a walking encyclopedia of the art form.
“In the 18th and 19th century, it was commonplace for European royalty to get tattooed,” he says. “King Frederik of Denmark was covered with them. JFK had one, but he used to cover it up with a Band-Aid. A lot has changed since then.”
Samuel O'Reilly invented the prototype for the modern electric tattoo machine in 1891 based on Thomas Edison's designs for a printing pen, explains Lucas, adding that O'Reilly also tattooed both Confederate and Union soldiers during the Civil War.
Co-founders Adam Montegut and Don "Doc" Lucas at the New Orleans Tattoo Museum in Central City — Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono
A second-generation tattoo artist, fellow founder Montegut, 31, learned from his father Henri Montegut, who in turn apprenticed with Lucas.
He wanted the New Orleans Tattoo Museum to be a hub for practitioners, the tattooed and the uninitiated. It’s also a place for artists to find inspiration in old-school works.
“I wanted it to be a comfortable place to ask questions, learn about the process and the history of tattooing in New Orleans,” he says.
If you're so inspired, there's a working studio in the back of the museum with Montegut and German artist Rachel Ulm available for a consult. Lucas will also tattoo there part-time.
Tattoo artist Rachel Ulm brings a watercolor sensibility to her work — Photo courtesy of New Orleans Tattoo Museum
Montegut created a large map dotted with noteworthy studios and a timeline of how body art developed a following in New Orleans, from the first working studio in the 1920s operated by George Pinell in the 200 block of Canal Street to the more than 40 studios operating today.
These include two rival shops on Frenchmen Street – Downtown Tattoo and Electric Ladyland – as well as Art Accent Tatoos on North Rampart, home to Jacci Gresham, the first black female tattoo artist not only in New Orleans but also in the United States.
Although there used to be studios in the French Quarter, that changed when Custom Tattoos was firebombed in the late 1970s and the city passed an ordinance banning the business from the Vieux Carré.
An example of one of Lucas' tattoos — Photo courtesy of New Orleans Tattoo Museum
The history of tattooing has long been an oral one, says Lucas, a tattoo artist for more than 40 years who wears his trade up one side of his body and down the other.
“It’s always been a tough business that attracted rebels – not the kind of guys who write things down,” he says.
Lucas had his studio until a few years ago on Highway 61, Airline Drive: the only tattoo shop in Metairie. He’s done thousands of tattoos over the years, including indelibly inking both Aaron Neville and Anne Rice.
“Used to be only outlaw types would get tattoos. Now it’s everybody: doctors, lawyers, kids. Tattooing is having a big time renaissance. It’s a $2 billion industry, and that’s just in America," Lucas adds. "Tattooing isn’t going anywhere – it’s always going to be around.”
Entrance to the New Orleans Tattoo Museum is free, although a donation is requested. Don “Doc” Lucas will give a free seminar at the museum about the art and history of tattooing on the first Monday of every month at 7 p.m.