Tattooing has a fascinating place within American society. In today’s popular culture, shows like “LA Ink” and “NY Ink” have unfortunately become representative of the contemporary tattoo scene. These shows offer a very water downed version of what tattoo culture is, and give no insight into the history behind it. Although tattooing has been occurring in the U.S. for hundreds of years, at certain points within history there have been unfair stereotypes associated with it.
The history behind tattooing in America is very colorful and ranges from soldiers in the Civil War, circuses and side shows, to today’s social landscape of reality television shows depicting “what goes on in tattoo shops.”
Image of Nora Hildebrandt,the first professional tattooed women in America
At the turn of the 19th century … things were a little different. Circuses and side shows played a large role in making tattoos more common place. For example, the “the tattooed lady” which has become an iconic image within today’s popular culture was seen as vulgar in the context of Victorian America. Although at this time, tattoos were still associated with criminality and savagery.
During the 1940s the social perception of tattoos began to change. This happened due to the large numbers of soldiers in WWII who came home with tattoos. This time period also produced a specific kind of tattooing that came to be known as the “traditional” or “old school.” Traditional/old school tattooing featured heavy, bold, black outlines of the images that are often filled with blue or red ink. One of the foremost “old school” tattoo artist of this time was Sailor Jerry. “Sailor Jerry” aka Norman Collins, began tattooing as a teenager with hand poked designs, and grew up to become one of the most influential tattoo artists that the U.S. would produce. Today many of Sailor Jerry’s images can still be seen on t-shirts, glasses, and bottles of alcohol.
Clip from the from the 2008 documentary “Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry” which talks about Sailor Jerry tattooing in Hawaii during WWII
Image of Sailor Jerry
During the late 1970s and through the early 1990s, a tattoo renaissance occurred that came to be known as the Modern-Primitive movement. This movement included piercers, tattooists, and body modification enthusiasts who were looking to reclaim tattooing and piercing by looking back to the history of it. Although active in the U.S., the Modern Primitives looked at the global history of tattoos and piercings. The father of this movement is Fakir Musafar . The style of tattooing being produced during this period came to be known as “Tribal tattooing.”
Tribal styles of tattooing typically had heavy, black outlines which were usually filled in with black ink that featured intricate designs. “Tribal” tattooing borrowing heavily from the cultures of Polynesia, New Zealand, and others, to create similar tattoo motifs, that had then been re-appropriated into a new social context.
Image of Musafar
Throughout the last few hundred years many social changes have occurred which have drastically changed the ways in which tattoos function in American society. These changes are significant because they have shaped a social history in which many people’s stories have been told through tattooing. Today, people like Ami James and Kat Von D have help create a new found interest in tattooing, although they are only part of the story.
To Read More about the history of tattooing, check out these books
1. “The Tattooed Lady a History A. Klem-Osterud
2. “Staging Stigma” M. Chemers
3. “Bodies of Inscription” M. DeMello
4. “Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women” L. Krutak