From at least the eighteenth century, and perhaps as early as the fifteenth century, European explorers brought home with them information about tattooing as it was practiced by many of the peoples that they encountered during their travels. These sailors began to get tattooed, probably influencing soldiers at home to get tattoos as well. In the United States, certainly since at least the Civil War, tattoos were an acceptable means for soldiers and sailors to demonstrate their love of their country as well as their feelings for the loved ones left behind. The first professional tattoo artist in the United States, Martin Hildebrandt, who opened his shop in New York City in 1846, tattooed many soldiers and sailors on both sides of that war. Hildebrandt also tattooed a number of tattooed attractions, such as his daughter Nora, who was said to have 365 tattoos (one for each day of the year).
[Being tattooed] separates me from
anybody else, no one else has any-
thing like what I have. I feel a little
bit different from Joe Shmoe on the
street, and I guess inside it makes me
Tattooed attractions were, alongside soldiers and sailors, the other major conduit for tattooing to enter mainstream American society. As American and European citizens clamored to see the tattooed natives being displayed at festivals and later World’s Fairs and carnivals, Europeans, and later Americans, got into the act, becoming tattooed themselves and traveling from place to place to earn money as an attraction. Starting in the 1870s, P. T. Barnum brought tattooed attractions into the American circus, and beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century, tattooed people moved onto the carnival midway. Circuses and carnivals brought tattooed people from the cities (where they were previously displayed at dime museums) into the country, where most people had never seen a tattoo, influencing countless men and women to leave their towns, join the circus, and become tattooed.
With Samuel O’Reilly’s invention of the electric tattoo machine, the process of tattooing became faster and less painful. This development played a huge role in the rise of the American circus attraction, as more men and women clamored to tattooists like O’Reilly to get a full-body tattoo in order to earn a living. Through the circus, many tattooists were able to travel the country tattooing, making tattoos more common, if not more popular among respectable citizens.
With O’Reilly’s invention, which allowed the artist to use a number of needles at once for outlining as well as for shading (as opposed to the single needle used in old-fashioned American pricking), the true Americana style of tattooing was born: strong black lines, typically made with five (or more) needles, heavy black shading, and a dab of color (first black and red, and later, green and blue became available).
While tattoo forms were European, consisting of many badge-like designs arranged on the body with no obvious relationship between them, the designs themselves were influenced both by what was popular with European clients (military insignia, hearts, banners, roses, etc.), and by what was specifically relevant to U.S. citizens (primarily patriotic imagery). Asian designs (dragons, Chinese characters, “Suzy Wongs,” tigers, etc.) also became popular in the West as sailors received tattoos at Chinese and Japanese tattoo parlors before the Second World War.
American tattooists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were typically working-class men with no artistic training. Some were sign painters, some learned to tattoo on the circus or carnival circuit, and many answered ads in men’s magazines which promised easy money (“$500 in 5 days”) for tattooing. Other tattooists learned their trade by paying an older tattooist to teach them. Some artist/suppliers would sell poor quality machines to unsuspecting buyers only to then charge them extra to teach them how to properly fix and use the machines. Percy Waters, a tattooist and supplier from the early part of the century, offered not only instructions on tattooing for a dollar (“a dollar well spent”) but offered to help locate the new tattooist in a carnival or circus. And finally, new tattooists could learn to tattoo by serving an apprenticeship with a tattooist. For little to no pay, the apprentice would trace flash, cut stencils, clean equipment, fix machines, make needles, and run errands.
I always wanted one so I got one
fairly small one, it was a bug (I was
already an entomologist), shortly af-
ter I finished my PhD … I’ve kind
of kidded people that the cicada is
just like me because it’s small, harm-
less and makes a really big noise
cause I’m always stirring up trouble.
Tattooing evolved in twentieth century North America in small spaces located alongside barbershops, in dirty corners of arcades, under circus tents, or on carnival boardwalks. While hidden away at the margins of society, the shops were nevertheless a home away from home for large numbers of men: sailors, carneys, drunks, laborers, as well as younger boys who would hang around hoping to learn the trade.
The classic American tattoo, whether the eagle or anchor of the sailor or the more universal vow tattoo (“mom” or a girlfriend or wife’s name), is a literal tattoo, or one whose meaning is readily understood and agreed to by members of the community who are literate in the system. The images were derived from popular culture, the placement was visible, the lines and color were bold, and the liberal use of alphabetic script in tattoos (the “word tattoo”) made them extremely easy to read.
Tattooing began to lose its popularity in the United States after World War II. The Pacific Ocean was no longer a hub of North American military activity, and many of the new enlistees were not planning on a career in the military. In addition, it was in the post–World War II period that saw many new restrictions placed on tattooing around the country, and in some areas, tattooing was banned because of concerns about Hepatitis and other health issues. The circus sideshow, too, which played such a major role in promoting tattooing to the American public, faded as well during this time, leaving heavily tattooed people without an occupation and removing the venue through which tattooists traveled the country.
As the nation’s military men returned to civilian life after World War II, the popularity of tattoos continued to decline as did the powerful influence that the military had on the forms of North American tattoos. While the new middle class busied themselves with marrying, having children, and moving to the suburbs, inner city and port town tattooing fell to its lowest levels of popularity. Traditional American tattooing was still practiced among many working-class men in most tattoo parlors, but a new form of confrontational, biker-style tattooing was developing on the streets. Tattooing in this period became a form of defiance, a challenge to both emerging mainstream middle-class values, as well as to the traditional form of patriotic and love-inspired working-class tattoo. Not only were tattooed outlaw bikers emerging as a sub-cultural group to be viewed with fear by the middle class in the late 1940s, but prisoners and Chicano gang members, already practicing homemade tattooing, moved into the public eye (especially after the zoot suit riots of the 1940s brought so much media attention to the tattooed Pachuco culture), contributing not only to an increasingly negative image of tattooing, but also to a splintering of the practice, wherein imagery, styles, and social practices became adapted to the individual subgroups.
As marginal groups began to wear tattoos in greater numbers (including, as well, hippies in the 1960s and punks in the 1970s and 1980s), tattoos themselves became the mark of marginality, a situation that would not change until the 1970s with the renaissance of American tattooing. This renaissance was led by Don Ed Hardy, Leo Zulueta, and a number of other influential artists (many of whom were influenced by the work of Sailor Jerry Collins), and aided by the spread of non-Western tattoo styles from Japan, Borneo, and other places, as well as the increasing professionalism of the trade…”(Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)