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Tattoos in Early England

During the 19th century, tattooing flourished in England like nowhere else in Europe. This was due to the tradition of tattooing in the British Navy, which began with the first voyage of Captain Cook in 1769. During the decades that followed, many British seamen returned home bearing souvenirs of their travels in the form of exotic tattoos. Sailors learned the art, and by the middle of the 18th century most British ports had at least one tattoo artist in residence.

Royal Tattoos

Tattooing gained royal sanction in 1862 when the Prince of Wales visited the Holy Land and had a Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his arm. In later life, as King Edward VII, he acquired a number of traditional tattoos. When his sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York (later King George V), visited Japan in 1882, Edward VII instructed their tutor to take them to the tattoo master Hori Chiyo, who tattooed designs on their arms. On their way home, the two Dukes visited Jerusalem and were tattooed by the same artist who had tattooed their father 20 years before.

The Duke of York -- later King George V -- acquired his first tattoo,
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Following the example of the Dukes, many wealthy Britons and naval officers acquired tattoos from Japanese masters. Read this article that appeared in the 1898 Harmsworth Monthly Pictorial Magazine entitled Tattooed Royalty. Queer Stories of a Queer Craze by R. J. Stephen, for more about this "fad". By 1890 the fad had spread to the US, and tattoos were seen on members of the highest social circles.

The first British professional was D.W. Purdy who established a shop in North London around 1870. In a booklet dated 1896, Purdy wrote:

"Before you commence to tattoo any individual you must be able to sketch well, as it is very difficult matter to sketch on a person's arm or on any other part of the body; you will have a good deal of rubbing out to do before you get the figure drawn correctly. Whatever part of the body you have to tattoo you must see that there are no large veins in the way, as they must be avoided… Before you commence drawing out your figure you must see that hairs are shaved off or you will have some difficulty in trying to sketch…"

The 1897 article by Gambier Bolton that appeared in The Strand magazine entitled Pictures in the Human Skin gives an overview of the tattoo scene of the late 1800's.

Field Marshall Earl Roberts
Field Marshall Earl Roberts

During the 19th century, tattooing was approved of and even encouraged in the British army. Field Marshall Earl Roberts, who himself was tattooed, directed that "every officer in the British Army should be tattooed with his regimental crest. Not only does this encourage esprit de corps but also assists in the identification of casualties.

One of the most prominent British tattoo artists of the late 19th century was Tom Riley. Riley had a natural talent for drawing that he developed into tattooing thousands of regimental crests and other military designs during the South African War and the Sudan Campaign. After leaving the army, Riley established himself as a tattoo artist in London.

His cousin, Samuel O'Reilly was a successful New York tattooist who invented and patented the first electric tattooing machine in 1890.

Riley's success was not only due to his sill but also his salesmanship. One of his original publicity stunts was the over-all tattooing of an Indian water buffalo at the Paris Hippodrome in 1904.

Sutherland Macdonald
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Riley's greatest rival was Sutherland Macdonald. Like Reilly, Macdonald learned tattooing while serving in the British army and later enjoyed the benefit of formal art school training. In 1890 he opened a London studio. He dressed formally and called himself a "tattooist" rather than a "tattooer". Macdonald enjoyed a privileged status with the Royal Navy and he advanced his career by courting journalists so that he became the subject of flattering magazines and newspaper articles. In 1897, Le Temps reported that he had elevated tattooing to an art form and in 1900 he was referred to in L'Illustration as "the Michelangelo of tattooing." MacDonald continued to tattoo until his death in 1937.

George Burchett
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George Burchett, is considered one of the greatest of the early British tattoo artists. He began his professional career in 1900, when Riley and Macdonald were at the height of their fame. As a child he was fascinated by tattoos and at age 13, he enlisted in the navy and learned the rudiments of tattoo art. After roaming the world for twelve years, he returned to England and at 28, he opened his first studio and began a career that earned him fame, a small fortune and the title, "King of Tattooists".

Burchett is the only early British tattoo artist who left a written record of his life and his work. After his death, his friend helped compile and edit his memoirs, diaries and other materials and in 1958 a book, Memoirs of a Tattooist was published.

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