Tattoos... Everyone has a different reaction to that word. It always got my attention. I think the first one I saw on a live person, was my cousins. I must have been 7 or 8 years old. He had a funny caricature of a devil on his arm with “born to raise hell” written over it. I was amazed by it and although it wasn’t until my mid 20’s when I christened my skin, I wanted one the second I saw that little devil.
Today, tattooing is far more accepted in society than it was back in the 60’s, still; there are people that frown upon the idea of marking your body with ink....forever. Whether it’s a religious issue, or their own personal preference, they can’t deny that the tattoo is almost as old as civilization itself.
The word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian word “tatu”, meaning to mark or to touch something. The earliest known tattooed person is the infamous “Iceman” found in 1991, in the Otzal Alps, located in Italy. Carbon dating proved that he had lived about 5,300 years ago. Fifty-eight tattoos were noted on his body!! Archaeologists think he was an important figure in his society. The tattoos were charcoal and water based.
Ancient cultures used tattoos to ward off sickness or bad luck. The Egyptians were the first to use needles to tattoo the body. Archaeologists exhuming tombs, have even found children’s dolls decorated with tattoos. Tattooing spread through Greece, and Arabia, and By 2000 BC., the tattoo had arrived in Asia.
The Japanese first used tattoos to identify criminals. Later it was transformed into an art form, producing some of the world’s most beautiful tattoos. The Yakuza (Japanese mafia) use their tattoos to intimidate their rivals. Japanese style of tattooing has influenced hundreds of artists today.
Polynesians have also contributed greatly to the art. Their instruments consist of sharpened pieces of bone, or ivory, tied to a stick. They “chisel” the ink into the skin by hitting the top of the instrument with a mallet type object. The tool might consist of one sharp object, or a whole row of objects, resembling a rake. Members of certain tribes underwent grueling hours tattooing their bodies as a right of passage. Those tools are still used today, for those same rituals, but it is a dying art form, performed only by those preserving their culture. They also developed a facial tattoo called the “Moko”. This facial tattoo consisted of lines drawn about the face that would tell that persons life story.
Centuries ago in Europe, it was common to have family crests tattooed on the body, but when the Normans invaded in 1066, tattooing disappeared. 600 years later, a sailor named William Dempher, ran into Prince Giolo, known as the Painted Prince. He was brought from Polynesia to London, put on exhibition, and became a sensation.
In the 1700’s, on one of his many trips to the South Pacific, Captain Cook came across Oami,a heavily tattooed man, whom he also brought back to England. The English were amazed, and soon tattooing became a fad amongst the upper class. Still it would be another 100 years before tattooing would have an influence in America.
The first electric tattoo machine was invented by Samuel O’Rielly in 1891. It evolved from an electric pen that Thomas Edison had invented a few years earlier. This machine is very similar to the one used today. With this invention, it was very easy to obtain a tattoo, so the upper class gradually turned its back on the art, and by the 1900’s the glamour of being tattooed had lost its appeal. Tattoo artists found themselves working the seedy areas of neighborhoods, and tattooing went underground. Only by word of mouth could someone find a tattoo artist, or even see tattoo art. Tattooing became a secret society.
Once again, Samuel O’Rielly to the rescue. He moved from Boston to New York City and opened a tattoo shop in very popular Chatham Square, the Times Square of its day, and the birthplace of American style tattoos. There he met Charlie Wagner.
O'Rielly taught Wagner the art of tattoo until Sam's death in 1908. Charlie then met Lew Alberts, a wallpaper designer. Alberts incorporated his designs into tattoo art, and started making flash designs. Tattooing flourished in Chatham Square for nearly 20 years, until the depression hit. The soul of tattooing then moved to Coney Island. Shops opened up wherever military bases seemed to be. Mostly sailors would get tattooed, and each tattoo brought a different story from a different place.
After the Second World War, tattoos were less popular. Their association with bikers, and jailbirds had a great impact on the decline of tattooing in American culture. An outbreak of hepatitis in the 1960’s brought tattooing to its knees. Needles weren’t being sterilized, and reports of blood poisoning flooded the newspapers. New York outlawed tattoos and shut down its shops in Coney Island. Tattooing moved to New Jersey, Philadelphia, and all the way to San Francisco.
Today, tattooing is legal again in New York, and just recently made legal in Massachusetts. Artists hold international conventions, where they display work, perform work, and give seminars on tattooing. Many have an art degree. Cleanliness is an unwritten rule in the business these days. Shops would not survive if the proprietors did not keep a clean place of business. Tattooing has once again reached the upper echelon of society. Movie stars, rock stars, and corporate executives now grace their bodies with tattoos. Every tattoo has a special meaning for the one who wears it. Whether it’s a tribute to a lover, or a child, mom or dad, a simple line or a detailed body suit, tattoos have made its mark in the history of the world.