Ink legends help museum open exhibit

Philadelphia celebrates the premiere of the Independence Seaport Museum’s new exhibit, “Skin & Bones: Tattoos in the Life of the American Sailor,” with tattoo legends and historians.

Debbie Eastwood tries out the “Original Uncle Sam Tattoo-A-Tron” (Sabrina Jacot/TTN).

Richard Sambenedetto, 36, of the U.S. Coast Guard is one of the many inked-out attendees at the opening night of the “Skin & Bones: Tattoos in the Life of the American Sailor” exhibit. Other guests may be recognizable by their faces, but Sambenedetto is known as the man with the tattooed feet.

His famous pig and rooster tattoos represent staying afloat at sea and are used in the promotional poster for the exhibit. With ink covering most of his torso, each of his tattoos has a meaningful story behind it, especially his children’s names, which remind him of his home life while he’s stationed at sea in locations across the country.

“Nothing above the neck,” the Northeast Philadelphia native said, explaining USCG tattoo regulations. “I’ll get the rest finished when I get out.”

Sailors and tattoo lovers from all over gathered at the opening-night festivities for the eight-month exhibit. The Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing will be the site of the exhibit. “Skin & Bones” will run through Jan. 3, 2010.

The invitation-only cocktail premiere had some noteworthy attendees.

Standing by pieces of work from his legendary past was the famous Philadelphia Eddie. Decked out in his easy-to-spot white suit jacket, he greeted fans, friends and family.

“I started tattooing in Coney Island in 1952 and moved to Philadelphia when they outlawed tattooing in New York,” Eddie said.

Near the end of the night, people swarmed the podium after a few failed attempts to pull everyone away from gazing at the exhibit’s interesting artifacts. Once everyone gathered near the front entrance of the Seaport, a few of the coordinators thanked guests and even managed to get Philadelphia Eddie to say a few words.

The exhibit’s main focus is to promote the strong belief that sailors share in the meaning and power of tattoos. It’s something that keeps them sane while they’re away from the things that keep them comfortable in life.

“Skin & Bones” pays homage to the history and beauty that comes with tattoos that have become a part of American history.

Not only focusing on the stories held by sailors, the exhibit will also have modern tools on hand. Visitors can get their pictures taken with the flash tattoo design that projects different tattoos onto body parts of their choice.

Attendees will have everything needed to write a 10-page paper on the historical aspect of ink. The entire display of vintage drawings and story pieces are presented in a timeline format along the walls of the Seaport in order to give visitors a good idea of where tattoos came from and how much they mean to sailors.

It’s a reminder that the millions of sailors in the 1950s and 1960s paved the way for the tattoo industry to become what it is today. If those sailors hadn’t demanded tattoos of their lady friends, the art form might not be what it is today.

Booklets featuring dozens of tattoo designs from the late 1800s are found next to a few of the glass cases in the exhibit.

“They may be slightly revamped, but it is still easy to detect where the idea came from and who the designer was that initially sketched the idea back in the late 1800s,” said Nick Schonberger, a tattoo historian from the University of Delaware. 

C.H. Fellowes’ design books are some of the earliest work of tattoo art. The exhibit also allows guests to flip through these mini design booklets.

“We really wanted to give people the opportunity to look at these designs close up,” Schonberger said. “The design booklets from the late 1800s are how tattooing got started.”

The exhibit is a must for tattoo lovers, as well as for those who don’t have a great deal of knowledge of the underrated art that is the tattoo.

John Stish can be reached at

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