is claimed that tattooing has existed since 12,000 years BC. The
purpose of tattooing has varies from culture to culture and its
place on the time line.
have always had an important role in ritual and tradition. In
Borneo, women tattooed their symbols on their forearm indicating
their particular skill. If a woman wore a symbol indicating she
was a skilled weaver, her status as prime marriageable material
was increased. Tattoos around the wrist and fingers were believed
to ward away illness. Throughout history tattoos have signified
membership in a clan or society. Even today groups like the Hells
Angels tattoo their particular group symbol. TV and movies have
used the idea of a tattoo indication membership in a secret
society numerous times. It has been believed that the wearer of an
image calls the spirit of that image. The ferocity of a tiger
would belong to the tattooed person. That tradition holds true
today shown by the proliferation of images of tigers, snakes, and
bird of prey.
recorded history, the earliest tattoos can be found in Egypt
during the time of the construction of the great pyramids. When
the Egyptians expanded their empire, the art of tattooing spread
as well. The civilizations of Crete, Greece, Persia, and Arabia
picked up and expanded the art form. Around 2000 BC tattooing
spread to China.
used tattooing for communication among spies. Markings identified
the spies and showed their rank. Romans marked criminals and
slaves. This practice is still carried on today. In Borneo, women
were the tattooists. It was a cultural tradition. They produced
designs indicating the owners station in life and the tribe he
belonged to. Kayan women had delicate arm tattoos which looked
like lacy gloves.
the west, early Britons used tattoos in ceremonies. The Danes,
Norse, and Saxons tattooed family crests (a tradition still
practiced today). In 787 AD, Pope Hadrian banned tattooing. It
still thrived in Britain until the Norman Invasion of 1066. The
Normans disdained tattooing. It disappeared from Western culture
from the 12th to the 16th centuries.
tattooing diminished in the west, it thrived in Japan. At first,
tattoos were used to mark criminals. First offenses were marked
with a line across the forehead. A second crime was marked by
adding an arch. A third offense was marked by another line.
Together these marks formed the Japanese character for
"dog". It appears this was the original "Three
strikes your out" law. In time, the Japanese escalated the
tattoo to an aesthetic art form. The Japanese body suit originated
around 1700 as a reaction to strict laws concerning conspicuous
consumption. Only royalty were allowed to wear ornate clothing. As
a result of this, the middle class adorned themselves with
elaborate full body tattoos. A highly tattooed person wearing only
a loin cloth was considered well dressed, but only in the privacy
of their own home.
Dampher is responsible for re-introducing tattooing to the west.
He was a sailor and explorer who traveled the South Seas. In 1691
he brought to London a heavily tattooed Polynesian named Prince
Giolo, Known as the Painted Prince. He was put on exhibition , a
money making attraction, and became the rage of London. It had
been 600 years since tattoos had been seen in Europe and it would
be another 100 years before tattooing would make it mark in the
the late 1700s, Captain Cook made several trips to the South
Pacific. The people of London welcomed his stories and were
anxious to see the art and artifacts he brought back. Returning
form one of this trips, he brought a heavily tattooed Polynesian
named Omai. He was a sensation in London. Soon, the upper- class
were getting small tattoos in discreet places. For a short time
tattooing became a fad. What kept tattooing from becoming more
widespread was its slow and painstaking procedure. Each puncture
of the skin was done by hand the ink was applied. In 1891, Samuel
O'Rtiely patented the first electric tattooing machine. It was
based on Edison's electric pen which punctured paper with a needle
point. The basic design with moving coils, a tube and a needle
bar, are the components of today's tattoo gun. The electric tattoo
machine allowed anyone to obtain a reasonably priced, and readily
available tattoo. As the average person could easily get a tattoo,
the upper classes turned away from it.
the turn of the century, tattooing had lost a great deal of
credibility. Tattooists worked the sleazier sections of town.
Heavily tattooed people traveled with circuses and "freak
Shows." Betty Brodbent traveled with Ringling Brothers Circus
in the 1930s and was a star attraction for years.
view of tattooing was so poor for most of the century that
tattooing went underground. Few were accepted into the secret
society of artists and there were no schools to study the craft.
There were no magazines or associations. Tattoo suppliers rarely
advertised their products. One had to learn through the
scuttlebutt where to go and who to see for quality tattoos.
birthplace of the American style tattoo was Chatham Square in New
York City. At the turn of the century it was a seaport and
entertainment center attracting working-class people with money.
Samuel O'Riely cam from Boston and set up shop there. He took on
an apprentice named Charlie Wagner. After O'Reily's death in 1908,
Wagner opened a supply business with Lew Alberts. Alberts had
trained as a wallpaper designer and he transferred those skills to
the design of tattoos. He is noted for redesigning a large portion
of early tattoo flash art.
tattooing was declining in popularity across the country, in
Chatham Square in flourished. Husbands tattooed their wives with
examples of their best work. They played the role of walking
advertisements for their husbands' work. At this time, cosmetic
tattooing became popular, blush for cheeks, coloured lips, and
eyeliner. With world war I, the flash art images changed to those
of bravery and wartime icons.
the 1920s, with prohibition and then the depression, Chathma
Square lost its appeal. The center for tattoo art moved to Coney
Island. Across the country, tattooists opened shops in areas that
would support them, namely cities with military bases close by,
particularly naval bases. Tattoos were know as travel markers. You
could tell where a person had been by their tattoos.
war II, tattoos became further denigrated by their associations
with Marlon Brando type bikers and Juvenile delinquents. Tattooing
had little respect in American culture.
most tattoo shops had sterilization machines, few used them.
Newspapers reported stories of blood poisoning, hepatitis, and
other diseases. The general population held tattoo parlors in
disrepute. At first, the New York City government gave the tattoos
an opportunity to form an association and self- regulate, but
tattooists are independent and they were not able to organize
themselves. A health code violation went into effect and the
tattoo shops at Times Square and Coney Island were shut down. For
a time, it was difficult to get a tattoo in New York. It was
illegal and tattoos had a terrible reputation. Few people wanted a
tattoo. The better shops moved to Philadelphia and New Jersey
where it was still legal.
In the late
1960s, the attitude towards tattooing changed. Much credit can be
given to Lyle Tuttle. He is a handsome, charming, interesting and
knows how to use the media. He tattooed celebrities, particularly
women. Magazines and television went to Lyle to get information
about this ancient art form.
tattooing is making a strong comeback. It is more popular and
accepted than it has ever been. All classes of people seek the
best tattoo artists. This rise in popularity has placed tattooists
in the category of "fine artist". The tattooist has
garnered a respect not seen for over 100 years. Current artists
combine the tradition of tattooing with their personal style
creating unique and phenomenal body art. With the addition of new
inks, tattooing has certainly reached a new plateau.