When viewers approach the doors of the Grunwald Gallery of Art this Friday, they’ll be met with a warning — graphic images inside.
On the walls are pictures and videos of nude women and extreme piercings, but that’s the nature of tattoo art. It’s about people and their bodies.
The Grunwald Gallery is opening its newest exhibit, titled, “Indiana Tattoo: History and Legacy.” The exhibit, which opens at 12 p.m. Friday, takes a comprehensive approach to all things Indiana tattoo and explores the state’s history of tattooing, famous tattoo artists from history and contemporary tattoo artists.
“I think tattooing is very steeped in tradition, and there are people who want to preserve it,” said Jeremy Sweet, the exhibit’s curator and the associate director of the Grunwald.
Sweet curated the exhibit along with Colin McClain, a local tattoo artist and owner of Time and Tide Tattoo on West Sixth Street. They spent more than a year tracking down the art, objects and memorabilia on display in the gallery through Feb. 3.
Viewers will enter the gallery and step into the world of Roy Craig Cooper, famously known as Roy Boy, who was one of the most iconic tattooers in the state. Roy Boy began tattooing in 1969 in Balboa, Indiana, before moving to Gary, Indiana. He set up his shop, “Roy Boy’s Place,” and then later his world famous shop, “The Badlands.”
However, it wasn’t technically called a tattoo parlor. In photos, the word “tattoo” can’t be found anywhere on the building’s façade; instead, it reads “art studio,” “photographer” or “film director.”
That’s because tattooing in Indiana, and most of the country, was illegal from 1963 to 1996. Roy Boy and all tattoo artists at the time were creating their art illegally, and Roy Boy was one of the best.
However, that’s not the exhibit’s focus.
“It’s not about whether Roy Boy was the best tattoo artist in Indiana but about showing his wild lifestyle and how he established a Roy Boy empire in Gary, Indiana, of all places,” Sweet said.
Part of why Roy Boy was so famous and influential was because of how well he marketed everything he did, and he did a lot.
Not only did he illegally tattoo countless people, but he owned about 10 tigers, photographed his wife who appeared in national tattoo and motorcycle magazines, received a piloting license and tried his hand at wrestling, Sweet said.
One story Sweet told was about when Roy Boy attempted to break a land speed record. He went through training and bought an 8,000 horsepower dragster to complete the task. He promoted the event so much that when his trainer said he wasn’t ready, he knew he had to do it anyway.
He took off from the starting line, and soon enough, the car was out of control. It ran into a telephone pole and exploded on impact. Roy Boy was rushed to the hospital with a critical leg injury that almost killed him, Sweet said.
The gallery has a piece of the dragster along with photos of the incident and his injury on display.
“He’s just one of a kind. He lived by his own rules. He didn’t answer to anybody,” Sweet said. “I think he was a significant part of the Indiana tattoo legacy, and he put Gary, Indiana, on the map for a lot of people.”
Sweet also said he thinks people in the tattoo community will be able to connect with not only the Roy Boy collection but also the history segment of the exhibit.
Sweet and co-curator McClain gathered newspaper clippings, artwork and about 120 images that showcase tattooed people from 1900-1950.
The collection comes from Bernard Kobel, who preserved and cataloged the photographs before they were later made part of the Kinsey Institute’s archive collection. It will be the first time all of the images will be on display together, Sweet said.
Also in the history collection is a story about a Bloomington tattoo artist named Kevin Brady, who opened a tattoo shop called All American Tattoo Studio on Walnut Street. Despite tattooing being illegal, people ignored the illegality of Brady’s shop because John Mellencamp liked it, Sweet said.
Eventually the state of Indiana and the Medical Licensing Board of Indiana brought a case against Brady in 1985 for tattooing without a medical license.
Brady rebutted and said not allowing him to tattoo people as a form of art was a violation of his First Amendment rights. He won, but the prosecution appealed and the next court reversed the decision. Tattooing remained illegal in Indiana until a tattooer named David Knox in Fort Wayne, Indiana, won a similar case in 1996.
In addition to an immense history, the gallery showcases current tattoo work in the third section of the exhibit and includes four artists from Time and Tide Tattoo in Bloomington.
About 30 tattoo artists completed 11-by-14-inch flash sheets, which are pages of hand-painted images that historically hung on the walls of tattoo parlors.
Customers would choose which artwork they wanted tattooed on their body from these sheets. Despite it being a mostly historical tradition, artists have continued painting and practicing on flash sheets like the ones people can see in the gallery.
A variety of events will help kick off the exhibit opening. Eric Smolinski, who collected the Roy Boy memorabilia, will speak about Roy Boy’s life and legacy from 4:30 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. Friday in the galley. Afterward, Sweet and McClain will give a talk about the collections until 6 p.m.
Starting at 6 p.m. there will be an opening reception and a live tattoo demonstration, where people can watch pre-approved clientele receive tattoos.
Sweet said watching tattoo artists at work will be an interesting experience for people. Tattoo artists have an ability to quickly put ideas onto paper, oftentimes ones that aren’t theirs.
Sweet said he has the utmost respect for tattoo artists because tattooing isn’t an easy art form. It’s artwork on a person — someone who moves, grows and changes. The canvas is bumpy and has curves. And it’s there forever.