Tattoos in the USA
In the 1890s, American socialite Ward McAllister said about tattoos: "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."
The most popular designs in traditional American tattooing evolved from the
artists who traded, copied, swiped and improved on each other's work. The
developed a series of stereotyped symbols that were put on soldiers and sailors
of both World Wars. Many designs represented courage, patriotism, defiance of
death, and longing for family and loved ones left behind.
The earliest records are from ship's logs, letters and diaries written in the
early 19th century.
One of the first professional American tattoo artists was C.H. Fellowes who was
believed to have followed the fleets and practiced his art on board ship and in
Several tattoo artists found employment in Washington, DC during the Civil War.
The best known tattooist of the time was German born Martin Hildebrandt, who began his
career in 1846. He traveled a lot and was welcomed in both the Union and
Confederate camps, where he tattooed military insignias and the names of
sweethearts. In 1870, Hildebrandt established an "atelier" on Oak Street in New
York City and this is considered to be the first American tattoo studio. He
worked there for over 20 years and tattooed some of the first completely covered
circus attractions, including his daughter Nora.
Frank DeBurdg, along with his wife Emma, were a fully tattooed husband and
The pair were tattooed in New York by Samuel O'Reilly, who later invented the
electric tattoo machine.
Along with the usual designs, patriotic symbols etc. Frank and Emma displayed
tattoos that showed their bond and devotion to each other. Frank wore a
beautiful scroll inscribed with the words "For Get Me Not", held up by a pretty
young woman with the name "Emma", underneath. Emma bore the names "Frank" and "Emma"in
They are best known however, for their religious themes with both Frank and Emma
exhibiting exquisite biblical scenes as part of their gallery of tattoos.
Frank's back was covered from shoulder to shoulder with the "Mount Calvary"
crucifixion scene. Emma's back displayed an even more impressive reproduction of
Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper". Meticulously done down to the most minute
After exhibiting in the U.S. during the mid 1880's the DeBurdg's traveled abroad
and enjoyed even greater success throughout Europe.
The 1897 article in The Strand magazine entitled
Pictures in the Human Skin
by Gambier Bolton is an excellent overview of the tattoo scene of the late
Samuel O'Reilly opened a tattoo studio at 11 Chatham Square, in the Chinatown
area of the Bowery in 1875. At this time, tattooing was done by hand. The
tattooing instrument used by Hildebrandt, O'Reilly and contemporaries was a set
of needles attached to a wooden handle. The tattoo artist dipped the needles in
ink and moved his hand up and down rhythmically, puncturing the skin two or
three times per second. The technique required great manual dexterity and could
be perfected only after years of practice. Tattooing by hand was a slow process,
even for the most accomplished tattooists.
In addition to being a competent artist, O'Reilly was a mechanic and technician.
Early in his career he began working on a machine to speed up the tattooing
process. He reasoned that if the needles could be moved up and down
automatically in a hand-held machine, the artist could tattoo as fast as he
could draw. In 1891 O'Reilly patented his invention and offered if for sale
along with colors, designs and other supplies.
Tattooing in the USA was revolutionized overnight. O'Reilly was swamped with
orders and made a small fortune within a few years. He used to travel to tattoo
wealthy ladies and gentlemen who didn't want to go to his Bowery studio.
O'Reilly took on an apprentice named Charles Wagner and during the
Spanish-American War in 1898, O'Reilly and Wagner worked overtime as sailors
lined up to be tattooed with images symbolizing their service in the war. At
that time over 80% if the enlisted men in the US Navy were tattooed.
By 1900 there were tattoo studios in every major American city. Designs for
tattoos were being produced for tattoo artists that didn't draw well. When
O'Reilly died in 1908, Wagner took over the Chatham Square studio and he
patented his own improved electric tattooing machine. Sailors continued to be
his customers, and Wagner's business got a boost in 1908 when US Navy officials
decreed that "indecent or obscene tattooing is a cause for rejection, but the
applicant should be given an opportunity to alter the design, in which even he
may, if otherwise qualified, be accepted." When Wagner was interviewed by the
newspaper PM in 1944, he estimated that next to covering up the names of former
sweetheart, the work which brought him the most money over the years had been
complying to the Naval order of 1908.
During World War II, Wagner was arraigned in New York's Magistrate's Court on a
charge of violating the Sanitary Code, he told the judge he was too busy to
sterilize his needles because he was doing essential war work: tattooing clothes
on naked women so that more men could join the Navy. The judge must have felt
that this was a reasonable defense. He fined Wagner ten dollars and told him to
clean up his needles.
Wagner estimated that during his career he had tattooed tens of thousands of
individuals, including over fifty completely covered circus and sideshow
attractions. His clients included people listed in the social register. There
are photographs in formal evening attire, complete with top hat and boutonniere,
tattooing an elegantly attired society lady.
Wagner was the first American tattoo artist who successfully practiced the
cosmetic tattooing of women's lips, cheeks and eyebrows. He also tattooed dogs
and horses so they can be identified in case of theft. He was also known to be
able to combine and organize several small designs to make a larger harmonious
Wagner continued to tattoo until the day of his death on January 1, 1953. He was
78 years old and had worked as a professional tattoo artist for over sixty
years. After his death the contents of his studio was hauled off to the city
dump. All his original drawings were destroyed. He had tattooed thousands of
individuals and hundreds of tattoo artists admired his designs and drew from
variations of them. Today he is recognized as a major influence in the classic
American style of tattooing.
Body ornamentation, especially tattooing, was spread among Western societies
when soldiers and sailors returning from conquest and trade imitated the
practices they had seen among the indigenous people of Asia, Africa and the
South Pacific. Working class men in Europe and America wore tattoos primarily as
a symbol of tough masculine pride throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries. However, a revival of interest in body modification in Western
industrialized societies in the late twentieth century is associated more with
domestic youth culture movements than with the foreign origins of such
practices. The Beatniks of the 1950s and Hippie movements of the 1960s turned to
Asian tattooing techniques as a personal expression of spiritual and mystical
body aestheticism. Conversely, working-class young people of the Punk movement
in the late 1970s and 80s used tattoos and piercing as symbols of rebellion in
an explicit political protest against their feelings of imprisonment in
society's rigid class structure and values.
Tattoos also have been recently linked to the American fine art world in a
number of ways. One of tattoos most significant ties to the mainstream art world
is the profusion of academy trained artists entering the profession. One late
1980's estimate placed the number of trained artists per year as having doubled
as compared with those who graduated in the 1970s. Even though the number of
galleries also grew within that period, art schools and programs were turning
out more trained artists than the mainstream art world could absorb. Within this
climate it is not surprising that art school grads have migrated into the tattoo
profession. As a result, the techniques acquired in various art programs
influenced the creation of new tattoo styles such as New Skool and
Bio-Mechanical, as well as a commitment to innovation and experimentation.
The practices and conventions of the fine art world have infused the profession
of tattooing. While tattoos have long been recognized for their aesthetic value
within tattoo communities, defining moments in tattoo art's legitimization
process only began to occur in 1995, when Soho's The Drawing Center, a
prestigious non-profit art institution presented ‘‘Pierced Hearts and True Love:
A Century of Drawings for Tattoos.'' This exhibition of Western tattoo flash and
its Asian influences marked the first major New York City tattoo exhibition
under the distinguished heading of art. When displayed within a gallery context,
the meanings and functions of the objects were recognized as having aesthetic
Flash refers to drawings of tattoo designs that are commonly found on tattoo
studio walls. Flash comes in two varieties, standardized images that are sold
commercially, or images drawn by tattoo artists themselves.
In 1999, New York City's South Street Seaport Museum hosted an exhibition
entitled ‘‘American Tattoo: The Art of Gus Wagner'' at the same time as the
American Museum of Natural History presented ‘‘Body Art: Marks of Identity''
which prominently included tattooing. Although these exhibitions differed in
content and scope they shared one essential commonality: the designation of
tattoo as art in an ethnographic and historical institutional context. Alan Govenar, tattoo historian, researcher, and collector, described ‘‘Body Art'' as
‘‘a major breakthrough for the museum to show its outstanding collection and to
create a context where that work could be understood.
Tattoos have not only risen in status to become popular and acceptable, in some
milieus, tattoos have achieved an elevated degree of aesthetic value. Tattoo art
and artifacts have value. Tattoo, a previously ignored and marginalized
practice, is undergoing a process of cultural re-inscription. New meanings of
tattoo are being generated by exhibitions that reframe tattoos as art. Recent
international exhibitions in American galleries and museums suggest that
cultural experts are now speaking on behalf of tattoo culture.
Some contemporary cultural anthropologists have interpreted tattooing as an
integral part of a larger phenomenon of body modification, including branding,
scarring and piercing, inspired by the global disintegration of cultural
Tattoo Museum Bibliography, Resources and Links
C. W. Eldridge's
Archive has more tattoo history info and images
Tattoos and the Circus