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Tattoo History in the world and United States

Tattooed sailor aboard the USS New Jersey [Lt. Comdr. Charles Fenno Jacobs (1904-1975) for the U.S. Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
Tattooed sailor aboard the USS New Jersey [Lt. Comdr. Charles Fenno Jacobs (1904-1975) for the U.S. Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

‎Sailors, rockers and criminals – these or similar were the sweeping judgments that the tattooed person encountered in the Victorian era and everywhere in the world up to the 20th century. ‎
‎How do women fit into the sailors’ cliché? A tattooed free shoulder in the opera? Well, surely worth a quick look, otherwise of course “reprehensible”? ‎

‎The old struggle between mainstream citizens and revolutionary youth? That’s how it all started but the tattoo found its way into normal society, around the late 80s.‎

‎How did tattooing, social ostracism and rehabilitation come about?‎

‎Tattoo History‎

‎This story shows tattoos in a different light.

Kings and bourgeois people, Polynesian sailors peoples in the South Pacific (Maori in New Zealand are a good example) and of course sailors – they all wore it – the body jewelry. ‎

‎Evidence and reports from Egypt, Greenland, Japan and New Zealand provide information on how old the tradition actually is. Among Maori and island residents in the Pacific, permanent body art often served to demarcate social classes, but also as a religious symbol of life after death. ‎

‎Since the late 18th century, Japanese have known the “body suit”, a full-body tattoo that was to be understood as a protest action against the enactment of the ban on certain kimonos worn at forbidden celebrations. Now they simply tattooed the colorful symbols on the skin. But Japan has undergone some changes in its position on tattoos. Around 300 AD, there are records of tattoos being worn as jewelry in Japan. This changed drastically in the following centuries. Presumably adopted by the Chinese, who regarded tattoos as barbaric (except, for example, by the Drung and Dai minorities), tattooing was also outlawed in Japan from about 600 AD and – as with the Chinese before – used as a label for criminals. ‎

‎Also on the North American continent, the explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries came across indigenous tribes that had known tattooing for a long time and used it in a social or religious sense. Belonging to a tribe or heroic deeds in battles could be expressed through tattoos. Or they wanted to have a frightening effect on enemies, as the Huron tribe practiced, for example. For the Inuits in the cold north, tattooing women was an expression of maturity. Women of the Osage and Cree hoped for protection from evil and diseases by having lines and dot tattoos on the chin. Mohave women, on the other hand, wanted to emphasize their beauty. ‎

‎Europeans who came to North America often considered tattoos a pagan or even diabolical custom. ‎
‎Overall, the records of early travelers and explorers in the world show that the art dates back at least as far as 10,000 or 15,000 BC ‎

‎Also remember the discovery of “Ötzi” in the Alps in 1991. Professor Konrad Spindler from the University of Innsbruck (Institute of Prehistory and Early History) described that the skin of the “man in the ice”, who was classified as about 5,000 years old, wore various tattoos. Some excavation finds dating back to more than 10,000 years BC have been classified as early instruments for tattooing.‎

‎Sailors and the tattoo‎

‎In the mid-18th century Captain Cook and his crew came in contact with tattoos during their Pacific explorations while meeting Hawaiians and Polynesians; his people and other sailors took a liking to this foreign art and quickly developed their own motifs away from tribal and faith. First, the sailors had themselves tattooed by the locals and looked at the technique. What followed was the attempt to tattoo yourself, which was practiced on board. The sailors brought tattoos to the rest of the world, where it was not yet known, especially Europe. At first, the port cities were inevitably the places where the first tattoo artists, often former sailors, settled on land. This new profession ensured that more art and dexterity could develop. In addition, the sailors now collected new tattoos from port to port – later a mirror of their lives and often of their lovers. In the 19th century, tattoos were a distinct domain of men who went to sea and this was very closely associated with it by society in general, meaning it was also a social evaluation and judgement. ‎

‎More than 95% of all sailors were tattooed at the end of the 19th century. During this time, the cliché was born, which persists to this day.

Social judgement

‎In Europe, in the middle to the end of the 19th century, a proper anti-mood against body jewelry arose and the image of tattooing was pushed into the realm of the crazy and criminal – in short: ostracism was initiated, many still feed on these ideas today. ‎

‎Nevertheless, this could not change the fact that in 1891 the electric tattoo machine was invented in New York and studios sprang up just like that. New York and other port cities were the strongholds.‎

‎In the United States, tattooing had a comeback during the Civil War – patriotic symbols dominated. Later, during the World Wars, the same inclinations could be seen in the soldiers – wearing a piece of home, faith and hope on their skin…‎

‎Modern times‎

‎The motivation is different, often it is a mirror of life stations, group membership, attitude towards life. And all this should be communicated to the environment – one is aware that one encounters possible rejection, because society has forgotten the historical background and put cliché judgments in the place. ‎

In recent years, the “Art of Tattoo” has become a widespread phenomenon again – it is shown on television, in commercials and cinema films. Not only members of motorcycle clubs have tattoos, and they find their way to mainstream people — still in some professions people prefer to cover up tattoos during working hours. ‎

‎The tattoo motifs‎

Modern tattoo machines and the ability of the tattoo artist today allow basically all motifs you can think of and with high sophistication and detail; the colors became better and more diverse over the years. What in the beginning was always black or blue has long since been replaced by colorful diversity.

People either select a ready-to-go tattoo motif from a catalog or they go with an idea to the artist who draws something up — it is always about expressing yourself, your life, your past, your … whatever — it is something you will wear for a long time because it is still difficult to ‘erase’ a tattoo.‎

‎Women and Tattoo History ‎

As mentioned, it was not uncommon for women in North America, the South Seas, New Zealand and Hawaii to be tattooed. Maori women had their lips dyed black, Samoan women know the malu, a rite that characterizes the coming of age of a woman through tattooing on the thigh. ‎
‎The Victorian era certainly didn’t just make it frowned upon among women to be tattooed – that was a general vibe.

But then in the 60s and 70s, tattooing came back into fashion and the 90s brought a boom. ‎

‎Women are currently the fastest growing group of tattoo wearers and every second customer in the tattoo studio is a woman. ‎

‎Tattoo art in the 60s to 90s in the USA‎


In the 60s, the new era of tattooing began in the United States – social status was to change a lot in the following decades. ‎
‎It began, once again, with a group that was far from being universally recognized: it was the time of social protests, of do-gooders, and whatever they were called. ‎


‎‎Then came the hippies and at the beginning of the 70s the Rolling Stones set a signal: everyone knows the rejection that flickered towards them and the following musicians from the mainstream citizens. But it was also about the new generation, which saw in it a possibility of protest, of being different.‎

‎It was the tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle (nicknamed Frisco Flyer) from San Francisco who tattooed the Rolling Stones, Daryl Hall, Peter Fonda and Janis Joplin and came into the press internationally. California was also one of the pioneer states in terms of a new perspective on this art movement: in 1982, for example, the Office of the Governor published a statement on the tattoo fair taking place, in which tattoo art was described as an archetype of the visual arts… ‎


‎In the mid to late 80s, the boom began, because tattoos became trendy and in the 90s the average citizen was reached.‎‎ The celebrities demonstrated it publicly – musicians, actors, models, athletes openly showed their skin artworks. Perhaps many ordinary people were already tattooed at that time, but who dared to show this openly?‎


‎In the sports sector, it was once only the boxers, this has changed quickly. ‎
‎At least a third of all athletes from football, baseball, basketball and almost all other sports are tattooed. And they are often making millions of dollars, just like actors and models. So, the stereotypical thinking that you can’t achieve anything with a tattoo seemed wrong. ‎

‎Do social classes exist?‎

‎In recent years, many of the national, recognized newspapers and magazines have dealt with the phenomenon. It is uniformly said that there are no longer any social classes that are excluded from the desire for individuality. It can be found in the executive floors of Wall Street and Madison Avenue, as well as in office workers, lawyers and workers — However, there are differences in where people of different professions get tattooed on the body, as some companies exert a kind of material compulsion and may not tolerate visible tattoos. ‎


‎‎The proportion of women has quadrupled in the last 20 years before the turn of the century and today it is assumed that every second customer of a tattoo studio is female. ‎


‎It is estimated that every 10th American (10%) has at least one tattoo. For younger age groups, especially from 18 to 40 years, estimates vary and one can assume 25-35%. ‎

‎Legalization of the profession

‎‎From 1997 to 1998, official bodies had to rethink, because tattooing was often not recognized or even prohibited. The authorities were thinking about legalization and especially in centers like New York, where illegal work had been going on for a long time, the art and the profession were made official. Also in New Jersey.‎

‎Today, tattooing is recognized by the national government as an art form on the one hand and as a profession on the other and there are no national laws, but each state has defined restrictions and requirements for tattoo artists and studios.‎

‎Tattoo Art in the Big Apple‎

‎New York is the birthplace of ‘modern’ tattooing using mechanical aids. Samual O’Reilly, who had a shop (Chatham Square), developed the first electric tattoo device from the ‘Electric Engraving Pen’ invented by Thomas Edison. This new technique made it possible to create finer or more precise lines and more sophisticated motifs and less time was needed. ‎


‎In New York, a style of its own quickly developed, which then also became known as the ‘New York Style’: Overall, a clear style with wide lines and strong colors. Today, however, the expert is characterized by fine lines and perfect gradients and shades. ‎

‎Back to New ‎York City: For many years, tattooing was illegal in New York. You only got a tattoo in the underground. New York City has allowed tattoo parlors again since 1997. ‎
‎The legalization contributed, among other things, to the fact that the hygiene regulations can now be controlled. Every operator of a studio needs a license, of which there are more than 400 in New York City. ‎
‎Since 1997, the tattoo studios in New York have just shot out of the ground, East Village is an epi-center where the art scene and alternative scene has always been well represented. ‎

‎The selection of tattoos ranges from thousands of finished motifs to individual design. Tribal motifs in black and grey are still at the top of the list of desired motifs, alongside views of pets, family members, religious motifs, fantasy (& bad) world and for some time now also ‘respected art motifs of the great masters’, which are brought to the skin instead of on canvas. ‎

‎Some of the tattoo artists are former graphic artists who have found the body as a new medium of representation and from their education have an eye for design and skills in illustrating. Prices vary extremely, depending on the artist and reputation in the scene – but hourly rates in New York between $100-$200 for a custom design are normal. ‎
‎The top artists of the scene have waiting lists of up to two years. Spontaneous appointments, however, are generally rather rare and usually an appointment is arranged. A deposit is common. ‎

Portfolio of a tattoo artist

Tattoo artists specialize often in certain areas like black and white, or portraits, or symbols, and so on — their portfolio will tell you if you like a certain style and you get an impression of the quality of the work. ‎

‎If you only want to dive into the scene once and you like to discover, the ‎‎NYC Tattoo Convention‎‎ or the New York Empire State Tattoo Expo (both around May/June) is the right place for you. ‎

‎Basically, tattoos are a matter of trust, after all, the skin is injured and contact with blood is normal. ‎

‎Therefore, despite the official license of the studio, anyone who has the desire to get tattooed should of course inform themselves in detail about the cleanliness and practices of the studio. A good studio will explain that anyway without asking.

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