101 Most Influential People in Tattoo (No. 16)—Spider Webb
Spider Webb has been an indomitable force in the world of tattoo art. He was the first in so many creative areas of the tattoo world. While others hid in the shadows, content, for the most part, with perpetrating an obscure carney art form with an even shadier clientele, back in the ’70s Spider exhibited―in a dramatic departure from what had gone before―half naked, tattooed models at a very highfalutin art gallery in the heart of the Big Apple. He recognized what tattooing really was: an innovative, world-class art form worthy of space on museum walls, uptown galleries the consciousness of art lovers the world ’round.
As his longtime friend Gatewood recounts: “The year was 1976. The place, the prestigious Levitan Gallery in New York. A heavily tattooed leatherman was playing ‘Amazing Grace’ on the bagpipes as I walked into the glittering exhibition space to see artist Spider Webb’s recent work. Hanging on the smooth white walls were giant photographic blowups of conceptual tattoos (showing, for example, digital time, tattooed on human skin). There were pictures of geometric shapes adorning body parts, plus a six-foot enlargement of a ‘tattoo brushstroke’ (an homage to painter Roy Lichtenstein). It was, I thought, one helluva curious show.
“Even more interesting was the colorful crowd: Magicians and groupies, witches and priests, tattooed women with cut-out costumes revealing tattooed tongues licking sexy pierced nipples, and preening gay men with tattooed snakes slithering into secret hiding places. Adding to the frenzy were several television crews with lights and microphones, plus a hoard of flashing photographers, all circling the evening’s star, Joseph Patrick O’Sullivan, the celebrated body artist known as Spider Webb.”
Spider was arrested for tattooing in front of Manhattan’s Museum of Modern, and, just in case somebody missed it, he repeated the event on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (for inking porn star Annie Sprinkle). All this in protest the city’s then ban on pushing ink. As his longtime compatriot Charles Gatewood recounts: “Suddenly, the official policy seemed clear: The tattoo law would remain on the books but would not be enforced. Spider had, in effect, won a significant victory not only for himself but for all New York City tattooists. Since then, New York City tattooists, following Spider’s lead, advertised openly and practiced freely. The archaic law was simply not enforced.”
And the hits kept coming. Who will forget the tattooed fetus, the thousand X project (a large X made up of one thousand tiny tattooed Xs), his flamboyant crowd-pleasing style, his electric crutch? But nothing approaches Spider’s dedication and almost-crippling months bent over a drafting table drawing poster after poster to commemorate the horror of the 9/11 tragedy (“Death from Above—The Drawings of Spider Webb,” Skin&Ink, November 2007). New York was Spider’s city and he poured out his heart in mourning its loses.
Books about and by Spider are countless. Among his Schiffer titles (www.schifferbooks.com) are Military Flash, Tattooed Women, The Big Book of Tattoos, The Great Book of Tattoos, Heavily Tattooed Men & Women, Historic Flash, Dragon Flash and Spider Webb’s Classic Tattoo Flash.
With a raft of outrageous live presentations and hand-crafted creations to his credit, one of his greatest triumphs remains Spider’s collection of flash art commemorating the tragedy perpetrated in September 2001. Rendered on paper, canvas and Bristol board—not to mention the tattoo machines he fashioned from twisted metal rescued from the Twin Towers wreckage—Spider’s gift to the world demonstrated one tattoo artist’s ability to be relevant, to be dedicated, to transcend tragedy with art. Words cannot encapsulate our heartfelt appreciation and thanks to this legendary pioneer and unforgettable character. It was Spider who made innovation and outrageousness a sorely-missed attribute in this incessantly diluted world of body art. Truly, when God made Spider Webb, She broke the mold.