For many people, tattoos are a roadmap of their life’s journey. Now you can navigate to a place in Shadyside for new ink and a lesson on the rich heritage of the art form.
In March, tattooers Nick Ackman and Jill Krznaric opened the Pittsburgh Tattoo Art Museum at 5413 Walnut St. From 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, attendees 18 and over are invited to descend the stairs and soak up knowledge.
For decades, Ackman has been collecting vintage flash sheets, stencils, tattoo machines, photographs and other memorabilia from the early 20th century through the 1970s.
The artifacts, which have been meticulously labeled, are arranged in antique display cases and will rotate about every six months. A $5 recommended donation helps fund the preservation and restoration of the relics.
One hundred years ago, tattoo shops across the country were filled with soldiers, sailors, bikers, babes and outlaws who decorated their bodies with designs that ranged from religious to patriotic.
Ackman has written and published numerous books profiling the artists who created the Americana style, which is known for its clean, black outlines and bold colors.
“I wanted the museum to be about early American tattooing and its relation to American folk art,” Ackman says. “Many of the designs were inspired by the things around them, like fruit crate labels and advertisements. It tells you a lot about the people who were making and wearing the images.”
Head to the museum to learn about icons such as Fay Balch, who opened a tattoo shop in Waynesville, Missouri, in 1957. Billed as the area’s only health department-approved studio, the establishment also boasted a rifle range.
Pittsburgh was a tattooing hub thanks to artists such as J.G. Russell, Sailor Ned Resinol and Hank Savini, the eldest brother of special effects legend Tom Savini. Before the iconic artist died in 2019, both Ackman and Krznaric received tats from him at his Coraopolis shop.
“Any time you have a working-class population, you’ll find a lot of tattoo shops,” says Ackman, who was raised by tattooed parents in Missouri.
When he moved to Pittsburgh, he bonded with Krznaric, a McKeesport native, over their mutual love for traditional ink. A new generation is embracing the old-school symbols. Chances are your buttoned-up co-worker has an eagle or anchor under their shirtsleeves.
If you’re in the market for a tattoo, the couple has a professional shop in the back of the museum. There’s plenty of hand-painted, original flash to choose from or you can bring your own design. Both Ackman and Krznaric have online portfolios.
As a kid, Krznaric would go to the local swimming pool with both arms covered in temporary tattoos. She got her first permanent mark — a clown — when she was in ninth grade. Ackman was even younger when he received a homemade stick-and-poke tattoo. The tattooers, who are now in their 40s, started apprenticing at shops as teens.
The museum boasts a picture frame filled with handwritten permission slips. Although faded and tattered by age, you can still read the words of parents whose underage kids were itching for ink.
Tattoos are no longer taboo. Celebrities, athletes and chefs are noted for rocking everything from dainty butterflies to full sleeves of skulls.
Ackman, who relied on tattoo magazines to connect to the culture, chalks up the surge in acceptance to social media, where tattooers share images of their human canvases.
Most of the pieces in the museum sat for years in attics and basements or were passed onto fellow tattooists after their creators passed away.
Will he ever stop collecting?
Krznaric shakes her head and smiles.
“Even when he’s dead,” she says. “He’ll still be collecting dust.”