Lost in Cyberspace with Mr. G
I didn’t believe that it would happen! I cared even less. When tattoo artists started talking about how the Internet would change our lives, I thought they’d been smoking too much “wackey-tobackey.” How the devil would a glitchy, overpriced, under-performing office machine replace the printing press? When I began my experience with personal computers, it took tireless effort to get a document to print accurately. To master the technology took weeks of learning that became obsolete overnight. To boot up a faint photograph was a miracle that soon faded or was lost in the pile of paperless paper. It would never happen!
The biggest joke for me was the so-called “Information Highway.” I tried to look something up using my twenty-eight kilobyte modem and a worn-out, old phone line that crashed the computer every time. It was much easier to look in a dictionary or a phone book.
But lately, I must admit that there are a lot of great websites out there. I think I see where technology is taking us. Tattoo searching has been evolving like wildfire and, yes, I find myself lost on the Internet, sometimes for hours. I guess the more information that is posted to the web, the more we can sift through to discover images, ideas and tattoo history. When I was in school as a kid, we went to the library, searched through card catalogs, then climbed around dusty shelves, only to discover that someone else had already checked out the book we wanted.
Now I am an old kid in the candy shop of tattoo history. Sometimes I may get lost visiting the Internet, looking at rare old sea chests or a pictorial history of Civil War cannons. I spend hours searching our grandparents’ modes of transportation: horse and wagons, old clipper ships, streamlined railways. With the Internet I can visit points of adventure all over the globe. Of course it’s not the same as “really being there,” but, armed with a bit of imagination, the Internet can open many doors to the elusive past and far-away places.
Most of the computer work I do is email correspondence, simple editing of tattoo portfolios and basic business bookkeeping. After tattooing for days, without a breath of fresh air or a ray of sunshine, the last place I want to be is in front of a computer. But when the moment is right and the outside world is not so inviting, I will do a “broadband trip out.”
Last winter, I was lured into a search of the Ronald G. Beckman collection of Charles Eisenmann photographs at the Syracuse University Library. This collection has been organized into a searchable resource with over a thousand images from the late 1800s. When I typed in the word “tattoo,” I was “off to the races” with seventy-nine wonderful images to explore.
I wandered in my underwear for countless winter nights through the Syracuse Digital Library. From the comfort of my dimly lit computer command module heated to seventy-two degrees, my cubicle was stored with caffeine drinks and greasy microwaved entrees, while the real world stormed somewhere outside. I would Google a name from the collection and wander off onto a side trail for hours, inspiring even more research.
I would dig around Syracuse for a while, then push a key and be in a museum in Australia. I would hear the cold winter wind howling outside. A relentless rain pounding loudly on the roof of my man-cave, I would re-enter the cyberspace world and delve into a circus website with antique images. Instead of just casually looking at old photos, I began studying every detail of the images of our dear, passed tattoo ancestors.
Look, I thought to myself, this gal has new tattoo work on her since her last photograph! She must have been back to see O’Reilly or Charlie Wagner on the off season. Boy! I sure like the way “Red” Gibbons cleaned up that eagle from the older image on this tattooed man’s chest! Is that a cover-up over “shoddy poppers” I see on that young girl’s thigh? The lady in the photograph probably had been dead for at least fifty years, but in my search of history that tattooed girl, Lulu, was alive in my mind. Yes, I was getting lost in cyberspace from the comfort of my own living room, a time traveler on a tattoo mission.
Except for a little eyestrain and minor carpal tunnel pain, my deep winter adventure was safe, cheap and, most of all, enlightening. I had never admired the tattoo work from years past the way I did last winter. My search was effortless and layered deep into the roots of tattooing. Like a family tree that had finally been discovered in an old, lost box of letters hidden in a renovated Victorian house with new tenants.
A collage of history that can be sifted through like a jigsaw puzzle from the past, the Internet now lets us connect our rich past with new pieces being shook from the box at the high speed pace of hypertext―available at our fingertips at anytime, anywhere… on any day.
I know that most folks are using the Internet to recreate an identity and score a party date on “MySpace” or “hormones dot communist,” but for me and other tattoo historians, unfolding tattoo history and organizing images and clips of information from years past is a dream fulfilling experience. The more I travel around these digital archives, the more I learn and enjoy our profession. I am able to piece together what it might have been like to work and live back in a rougher, leaner era of tattooing. By discovering and exploring the digital archives available online today, I am able to walk back in time through the circus sideshow, dime museums and penny arcades that are our heritage.
―Mr. G (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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