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The Evolution of Tattooing in America

How tattoos went from freak shows to art shows

Sailor Jerry tattoo designsSailor Jerry tattoo designs
GREY Journal

The history of tattooing stretches much farther back than the history of the United States. Native American, Polynesian, Egyptian, Japanese, and other cultures embraced the art form long before the Declaration of Independence. But, the perception of tattoos in the United States has gone through a unique kind of metamorphosis that’s worth talking about.

Hello Sailor

An etching of “Prince Giolo,” a tattooed slave captured from the Island of Miangas by William Dampier’s expedition in 1691.
An etching of “Prince Giolo,” a tattooed slave captured from the Island of Miangas by William Dampier’s expedition in 1691.

American tattooing as we recognize it today is rooted in the 1700s. Explorers visiting the Polynesian islands (and other places where tattoos were normalized) picked up the trend for themselves and spread it wherever they made port.

“Tattooing in the U.S. started along the East Coast and West Coast and then worked its way inland.”

Capt. Jonathan Boulware, Executive Director of the South Street Seaport Museum.

A published account of James Cook’s voyage to Tahiti recorded native islanders using the word ‘tatau to describe their body art in 1769. This quickly became ‘tattoo’ for English speakers and is how we refer to the art form today.

“Explorers like Cook took sailors to the South Pacific, where tattooing was a highly developed art form going back centuries. These sailors wanted to bring back a record of this style of tattooing, and there’s no way to take a tattoo home except in your skin.”

C.W. Eldridge, the founder of the Tattoo Archive
A tattoo design by C.H. Fellowes from his only surviving sketchbook found in 1966.
C.H. Fellowes

C.H. Fellowes, one of the first known figures in American tattooing, is thought to have followed ships and set up shop in each port they stopped at (1). Not much is known about this mysterious tattooist, but it’s likely he wasn’t the only one jumping ports for business.

The fact that Fellowes is remembered at all is significant. In the art world, an artist’s name is key. Essentially it’s their brand. If Fellowes were simply practicing a trade it would be far less likely for him to be remembered the way he is. This may serve as a hint that at least a portion of US society began thinking of tattoos as an art form.

Barbarous Habits

Despite the growing popularity of tattoos among sailors and the lower classes, the American aristocracy generally looked down on getting inked. They were seen as yet another thing that separated the ‘have’ from the ‘have-nots’.

“It is certainly the most vulgar and barbarous habit the eccentric mind of fashion ever invented. It may do for an illiterate seaman, but hardly for an aristocrat.”

Ward McAllister, American Aristocrat, 1890’s

Meanwhile, Across the Pond

To Europeans, tattoos were scandalous and exotic. In Victorian England, it became a secret fad amongst the aristocracy. People would be inked in easily covered locations so as to ride the edge of risque behavior.

During an 1862 trip to Jerusalem, the Prince of Wales got a tattoo of a cross. Later his sons, Prince Albert and Prince George, received dragon tattoos in Japan from Hori Chyo, a tattoo genius (2). Thanks to royal and aristocratic interest, tattooing became seen as a fashion statement. Tattoos became popular enough in Britain that the first tattoo shop was opened in 1894 by Sutherland Macdonald (3).

For some American aristocrats, the rise in interest among the British upper classes was enough to inspire them to follow suit. However, without the number of established artists Brittain had, many people ended up traveling overseas to get inked. This ended up minimizing the fad to a minority of the American rich.

From Sailors to Soldiers

A Civil War military camp

Back in the states, tattooing had taken on different connotations. Unlike England, the US was embroiled in the Civil War between 1861 and 1865. Tattoos became common amongst soldiers on both sides of the conflict.

They were a way for soldiers to guarantee that their bodies would be identified in the event of their death (4). Popular designs included military insignia and names of loved ones.

“Your stripes can get torn off in battle, tattoos can’t.”

Paul Roe, Tattoo Historian
Martin Hildebrandt

It was at this time an influential figure in tattooing began to make a name for himself. Martin Hildebrandt was a sailor when he was first exposed to tattoos as an art form. It’s unclear who he learned from, but his earliest recorded work as a tattooist is in 1846 (5). Once the Civil War broke out, Hildebrandt served with the Army of the Potomac and found a whole new set of clientele.

“During the war times, I have never had a moment of idle time. I marked thousands of sailors and soldiers, put the names of hundreds of soldiers on their arms or breasts. Also, many were recognized by these marks after being killed or wounded.”

Martin Hildebrandt, Interview with the New York Times, Jan. 16th, 1876
Photo of Jacob Hildebrant. Possibly the only surviving documentation of Martin Hildebrant's prolific tattoo career.
Photo of Jacob Hildebrant. One of the few surviving photos of Martin Hildebrant’s prolific tattoo career.

After the war, Hildebrandt established the first ever tattoo shop in New York City at 36 1/2 Oak Street in Lower Manhattan in 1870. For tattoos to be so widely used amongst soldiers, there’s no way Hildebrant was the only artist working on the frontlines. It’s likely he is remembered not only because of the sheer number of tattoos he created, but for his exceptional skill as well.

Post-War Popularity

Civil War veteran, Captain DeCoursey, tattooed by Martin Hidebrant

After the war ended, it’s likely that the majority of the soldiers returning home had some kind of ink. While it was still thought of as unseemly, it was more common to come across sailors, soldiers, and other outcasts sporting tattoos.

Soldiers who came home from the war wanted to decorate their bodies with celebrations of their survival. Sailors still wanted tattoos to symbolize their accomplishments and satisfy superstitions. Whether the upper classes liked it or not, tattoos were becomeing more visable in society.

Samuel O’Reily

Like Martin Hildebrant, Samuel O’Reily was introduced to tattooing while he was a sailor. He didn’t serve in the Civil War, as he enlisted in the navy in 1875, but he still found himself deeply enmeshed in tattoo culture. After leaving the navy he went to prison for a time on burglary charges before opening his own tattoo shop in 1888 (6).

Samuel O’Reily’s patent for the first electric tattoo machine

Shortly thereafter, on December 8, 1891, Samuel O’Reily was issued a patent for the very first electric tattoo machine (7). This machine was a precursor to what tattoo artists use today and revolutionized how tattoos were made. It made the process faster and artist found it easier to make consistent lines.

Super Freak

John O'Reily was one of the first tattooed men to display himself in dime museums and freak shows
John O’Reily was one of the first tattooed men to display himself in dime museums and freak shows

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people covered with tattoos became attractions in and of themselves. Many freak shows and circuses boasted tattooed men and woman in their coterie, which attracted crowds of people. It wasn’t long before postcards and pictures started being sold of the performers and tattooing began to garner a unique kind of fame.

Nora Hildebrant

Nora Hildebrant (pictured above) was one of the first tattooed women to gain fame in the freak show circuit with her first recorded contract beginning on March 1, 1882 (8). At the time, it was common for tattooed performers to make up stories about how they received their tattoos.

Nora told her audiences that she had been kidnapped by Sitting Bull and his tribe. She claimed that after seeing her father’s tattoos, Sitting Bull offered to spare their lives if he agreed to tattoo Nora from head to toe. She would go on to describe how she was tied to a tree and forced to get a tattoo for each of the 365 days of her captivity. Supposedly her father then broke his needle as an excuse to stop tattooing and was killed for it. Three weeks later Nora was miraculously rescued by General George Crooke. (9)

The story is obviously false, but it was compelling enough to draw in crowds. The fact that she goes out of her way to mention that the tattoos were forced on her probably excused her from slander other performers may have had to deal with. Between her charisma, storytelling, tattoos, and a bit of strip tease, it’s not hard to see why audiences at the time may have been hooked.

Woman’s Work

Many historians have speculated that the reason so many women agreed to be tattooed head to toe was to enact their own independence. Nora Hildebrant was reportedly paid $100 a week which was a lot of money in the 1800s. The ability to support one’s self financially made freak show work all the more alluring for women looking for self-liberation.

“These are women who were business-savvy, who learned how to make a living and profit by capitalizing on this fascination with tattoos. Tattoos were an early way that women took control of their bodies.”

Cristian Petru Panaite, Curator at the New-York Historical Society
Mildred Hull

This newfound agency for tattooed women allowed some of them to diversify their business. Mildred Hull, a woman who began working in freak shows in the early 1900s, taught herself to tattoo. With her income from her burlesque-tattoo performances, she was able to open her own tattoo shop in the back of a barbershop. Nicknamed “The Queen of the Bowery”, she was the first female tattoo shop owner in the United States.

An Unspoken Fad

A 1920s woman sports eyebrow tattoos

Once the 1920s rolled around, tattooing was still looked down on by the public. However, as Hollywood popularized glamorous makeup, many women were eager to try the trend for themselves. Unfortunately, at the time even low-quality make up was expensive and most woman could not afford it.

Instead, many women secretly had cosmetic tattoos to emulate makeup done. Popular treatments included the permanent eyebrows, contoured lips, and tinted cheeks. While the general public tended to condemn tattoos, they still silently embraced them.

This is just one example of how throughout the 20th century, tattoos existed in a type of duel perception. While they were condemned for being signs of barbarism, they were simultaneously marketed as chic fashion choices. While many people in the upper classes may not have wanted to admit it, they probably were getting tattoos too.

Social Security

When social security numbers were introduced in the 1930’s many citizens were hard pressed to find ways of remembering them. Getting tattoos of one’s social security number became a common practice and was seen as a functional choice.

This was the first time the general populace openly admitted to getting tattoos. While more artistic designs were still seen as scandalous, it was a step in the direction of acceptance.

Bright, Bold, and Beautiful

Sailor Jerry tattoo designs

The 1940s is when America’s most iconic tattoo style, American Traditional, was truly born. The introduction of new talented tattoo artists kick-started a style of tattooing that’s still popular to this day.

Norman Keith Collins (AKA Sailor Jerry”) in his shop
Sailor Jerry

Norman Keith Collins, AKA Sailor Jerry, played a huge part in establishing the American Traditional way of tattooing. As a Honolulu based war veteran, Collins combined what he’d learned from American, European, and Japanese tattooing to establish a whole new style (10).

Sailor Jerry tattoo designs

After becoming enamored with Japanese tattooing, Norman wrote to these eastern masters and exchanged techniques and tracings. For Norman, the results yielded brighter colors and bolder designs.

“He was an incredible draughtsman and artist who made use of the technical limitations of the medium to produce incredible designs. His pieces are complex enough to have life and energy, but simple and stripped-down enough that they look great in the skin, are readable from a distance, and age superbly.”

C.W. Eldridge, the founder of the Tattoo Archive

A Real Man Gets Tattoos

As the 1950s progressed, the nation was experiencing with the post WW2 economic boom as thousands of soldiers tried settling back into their lives. Much like previous wars, many of these men were tattooed while serving. When these veterans were lauded as heroes, their ink became a piece of that image. Manliness could now be signified through getting inked.

The Marlboro Man

This is evidenced by the fact that the Marlboro Man, the symbol of American manliness at this time, also sported ink. Advertisements featured veterans with hand tattoos corresponding to branches of the military or service achievements. By doing this the company linked the pride and strength associated with the military to their own cigarettes.

Still, this didn’t spark a new wave of tattoo patrons. People with tattoos continued to get the brunt of unfair assumptions and prejudices. Soldiers, sailors, and outcasts were still the majority of tattoo clients. Again we see an example of US society honoring something whilst spitting on it in disgust.

The Hepatitis Health Scare

The Cony Island tattoo shop accused of the Hepatitis outbreak

In 1961 there was an outbreak of Hepatitis in New York City which was blamed on a Cony Island tattoo artist named Fred Grossman (11). Whether he was responsible or not is unclear, but these events did result in a citywide ban on tattooing. While Fred Grossman tried to sue the city for an illegitimate exercise of power, the judge had made up his mind long before the case had been heard.

“The decoration, so-called, of the human body by tattoo designs is, in our culture, a barbaric survival, often associated with a morbid or abnormal personality.”

Judge Aron Steuer

It was clear that tattooists were not going to be receiving sympathy from law enforcement. The continued denial of an art form was frustrating for tattoo artists, who had never truly had their work accepted by American society.

“[The city claimed that there was] an outbreak of hepatitis B, while others suspected it was because the city wanted to clean up before the [1964] World’s Fair. There’s also supposedly a love story involving a city official and one of the tattooer’s wives, and that kind of turns into a personal vendetta.”

Cristian Petru Panaite, in an interview with Smithsonian.com

In the wake of these new bans, many tattoo artists moved their shops outside the city. But many more stayed behind and continued tattooing in secret (12).

Unfortunately, the ramifications of this echoed through the rest of the country as tattoo shops were framed as health risks. There was a big drop off in clientele during this time, and while some celebrities (like Janis Joplin) got tattooed anyway, a lot of the general public stayed away.

The Art of Counterculture

The 1970s marked the first time in a long time that tattoos were embraced by people other than veterans and sailors. The countercultural movement gave rise to tattoos of peace signs and other hippy symbology. People started getting full sleeves designed all at once and bodysuits became more popular. There was an uptick in patrons as young members of society wanted to show proof of their commitment to their beliefs in a perminat way.

Cindy Ray, AKA “Miss Technicolor”, toured as an attraction before learning to tattoo herself.

The 70’s also marked the first real wave of female tattoo artists entering the industry. With them, they brought influences from fine art and music to create new symbology and imagery.

Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll

The 1980s brought Rock and Roll to the forefront of American culture. Rock stars who sported heavy tattoos inspired huge waves of fans looking to get ink themselves. If tattooing was just entering mainstream in the 70s, the 80s is when it plunged in completely.

The punk movement exploded into popularity as it encouraged its fans and participants to express their rebellion physically. Wild hair colors, piercings, and tattoos became big parts of self-expression. With the rise of plastic surgery, body modification no longer seemed so crazy.

It Means “90s” in Chinese

The 90s saw the normalization of tattoos. More and more people followed role models like Cher, Sean Connery, Dennis Rodman, and Pamela Anderson’s lead in getting tattoos. It was at this time that tribal designs and Chinese lettering became immensely popular.

The 90’s tattoo industry also experienced another wave of female tattooers and patrons. By 1996 it was estimated that roughly half of people seeking tattoos were women (13). This increased the popularity of more traditionally feminine designs like butterflies and permanent make up. This also marked the first time that female breast cancer survivors got tattoos to cover up their scaring.

However, tattoos were discouraged in office environments and having visible ink during an interview could block you from being hired. While it was acceptable in some professions, sporting ink in the office still inspired distaste in many cases.

It’s Living Art

Judges on the TV show, Ink Master, (left to right) Chris Nunez, Dave Navaro, and Oliver Peck

Today tattoos are increasingly seen as an art form. Now that having tattoos has become more or less normal, people have become preoccupied with quality. The creation of Instagram in 2010 inadvertently made a platform for tattoo shops and artists to display their work and reach wider audiences. With more and more artists fresh out of art school going into tattooing, the number of styles has exploded in the last decade or so.

Tattoos have cemented their hold on popular culture through magazines like Inked and TV shows like Ink Master, both of which have garnered huge followings and inspired people to get inked themselves.

It’s become more acceptable to have visible tattoos in office environments and people sporting ink are no longer likely to be blocked from getting regular jobs. This has made it easier for people to justify getting inked and brought a new wave of customers to tattoo shops.

It’s Been a Long Journey

Over the years we’ve seen tattooing go from something that indicated barbarism to something that is considered and art form. While the rapid evolution in the industry’s perception still has a ways to go, at least people can wear ink with pride these days.

What do you think of the US’s perception of tattoos? Let us know in the comments below or on social media!

Madeleine Hettich
Madeleine Hettich is a graphic designer, writer, illustrator, and comic book artist. After graduating with a BFA degree (with an emphasis in Visual Communications Design) from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she worked as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer before being hired by GREY. She continues to develop independent illustration and comics projects in her own time. This background gives her a unique perspective when writing about any number of topics.

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