Museum of `modern' art

The history and creativity of tattoos are on display and put into practice


Gonzalo Jouan is sitting in a chair at the Baltimore Tattoo Museum, very still. He breathes in slowly, then out slowly. He turns his shaved head and looks at the needle plunging in and out of his distinctive bicep. Museum co-owner Chris Keaton has been guiding that needle along his arm for more than an hour. Despite the pain, he shuts his eyes hard for a few seconds, opens them and smiles.

This is not merely a stolen glance: Jouan's tattoo experience is considered an exhibit at this museum. Opened in 1999, it was designed to give visitors not only a history of tattooing, said Keaton, but also a peek into the process. Tattoo booths with open doors and viewing windows give visitors an eyeful of the inking in action.

"A lot of people who might not get a tattoo wouldn't necessarily go in and ask to see," Keaton said, so he's opened it up to them.

Customers and tourists also can peruse walls of tattoo art and cases of old tattoo machines and paraphernalia that tell of the tattoo's history in seaports and with the circus crowd.

"Most of the older tattoo shops you go into already are museums. Most of the stuff collects," Keaton said. "We wanted to start out the same way."

Many of the historical items in the shop, from old posters to tattoo instructions and ancient-looking machines, were donated from friends and tattoo shops that had small collections. Many items were donated by Gene Spiers, a man who discovered the shop and decided to donate his collection because he felt his family wouldn't appreciate it, Keaton said.

The idea behind the museum side, Keaton said, was to give some credit to the artists who came before.

Keaton helped Chase Street Properties owner Jouan design a dragon tattoo that would "protect" his kids' names already inked on his arm. This is his eighth tattoo since coming to the United States in 1989 from Argentina, where he said tattoos have somewhat of a stigma. But he's caught the bug, which happens to a lot of people, according to Keaton.

"I know people with one, but I don't know anybody with two," Keaton said. "If you have two, you always want more."

Caroline Donaghy and Kristin Hendrick are no exception. The two women skate in roller derby with the Charm City Roller Girls and are in the shop getting tattoos to commemorate victories at the national Rollercon in Las Vegas.

The whole team is getting tiny teardrop tattoos, they said, a little slap in the face to a team that called them crybabies and that they subsequently beat.

"I've never had a tattoo so small you just put a Band-Aid on it," said Donaghy with a laugh.

When it's Hendrick's turn, her daughters peer through the door, eager to catch a glance.

The Baltimore Tattoo Museum is at 1534 Eastern Ave. Admission is free. Call or walk in for appointments with one of the five artists. Hours are noon-8 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and noon-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 410-522-5800 or visit

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