The Queen Mary could become home of country's first national tattoo art museum

A nonprofit wants to convert unused space on the ship into a permanent museum to showcase the history, present and future of tattoo art.

The Queen Mary could become home of country's first national tattoo art museum
The Queen Mary in Downtown Long Beach Monday, April 1, 2024. Photo by Brandon Richardson, made with a Canon Rebel XS on Kodak Ultramax 400 35mm.

Long Beach is home to the oldest operating tattoo shop in the United States and a new nonprofit run by some of the most notable tattoo artists in the country think it should also be home to the country’s first national tattoo art museum.

Representatives from the Tattoo Heritage Project pitched the idea to the City Council’s Arts, Culture and Tourism Committee Tuesday afternoon and shared their vision for a new museum aboard the Queen Mary that would tell the story of tattoo artists in the city’s past and present but also project what the future could hold for the industry.

The group is looking at some 10,000 square feet aboard the ship, where it hopes to install historic pieces from the tattoo art community and show the journey from the early days — when tattoos were seen as taboo — to today’s warmer public perception.

It would be the first national tattoo art museum in the country.

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“Our history is important and it always has been and we want to bring that to everybody,” said Kari Barba, owner of Outer Limits on Chestnut Place in Downtown.

Barba, a member of the Tattoo Heritage Project’s board, pointed to the ship’s role in carrying soldiers back and forth during the world wars. Nearby, the city’s notorious Pike area is still known for its tattoo history and connection to early sailor tattoos and the 97-year-old shop that Barba now owns.

“The history with the Queen Mary and tattooing is intertwined in many ways,” Barba said.

Jason Ruiz has been on strike from the Long Beach Post since March 21, yet he’s still covering city hall without pay. Thank him for his reporting.

Barba has been tattooing since 1979 and was one of the first female artists to work in an industry that men had dominated. Outer Limits, which has been in operation at its current location since 1927, has a small tattoo museum inside.

If the project moves forward, she says the museum inside Outer Limits would stay put but other rotating shows and exhibits would flow through the Queen Mary’s own tattoo museum.

The art exhibits that the group hopes to install on the ship would tell the stories of industry but with a focus on it being a true art form. The museum could also provide a space for documentary screenings, panel discussions and other educational opportunities for visitors.

Board members said that they also want to create a family-friendly museum where children could learn about the history of the art form through painting, drawing and other mediums.

“We want to show the fine arts part of it and get away from the way people may think of tattoos in some ways,” said Kevin Johnson, a local business owner and member of the board. “We want to get rid of some of those ideas and show them that there is so much more to the whole history of it.”

Getting the museum up and running on the ship will still require some work. While members of the committee were supportive of the idea, organizers will have to work out a business plan with the ship’s operator.

Where the museum could be located on the ship, how much room the group would have for exhibits, and what the operating costs could be are still to be determined. The group will also need more investors and donors to help bring the project to fruition.

Kimiko Tokita, the group’s secretary, said that the initial projected cost for the is about $6 million; however, if the group and the ship’s operators can strike a deal that price could come down substantially.

Tokita said the ship’s operator would likely run logistics like ticket sales and security while the Heritage Project would be in charge of curating the museum.

Councilmember Cindy Allen said Tuesday she’d like to see the project completed before the 2028 Olympics, noting that it would be a good opportunity to expose visitors from around the world to the proposed tattoo museum.

However, members of the project would like to see the museum up and running much quicker than four years from now.

Barba said she’d like to see it open within the year if a deal is reached. Barba says that a museum like this one is important because it would give the art form “grounding,” adding that the museum would be a fixture for people to visit year-round.

Those who support the proposed museum say it will help display the diversity and history of the industry and help draw visitors to the city. A tattoo artist named “Lucky” said that a museum like this could spark an interest in youth and help keep them out of trouble like tattooing did for him.

“I was a knucklehead gangbanger when I was a kid, tattoos saved my life,” he said. “Art saved my life and now it’s time to give it back.”

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