Tattoos: a mark on the skin, or a mark on society?
Tattoos over the past 2000 years have been seen as the mark of an outsider or a degenerate. For the rough-necks of society. The criminals, slaves, delinquents, bikers, circus freaks, foul mouthed sailors, prisoners, gang members and the like.
Throughout my blog I will take you through a history of some of the more colourful characters I have come across during my research of this topic. I hope you enjoy as much as I have!
512BC The Romans
The negative perception of tattoos in society is by no means new. In fact, the origin of the word shame comes from the word, “stigma”, which was the Ancient Roman word for tattoo.
Slave tattoos entered the Roman world through the Greeks, who had taken on the practice from the Persians.
The Romans and Greeks tattooed markers onto the foreheads of their slaves with, ‘FHE’ or “Fugitivus Hic Est’ meaning, ‘this is a runaway’. Similar markings were also used on, Gladiators, thieves and even adulterers. Even the great philosopher, Plato, believed that those guilty of sacrilege should be marked by a tattoo. The Greek emperor, Thophilus, is rumoured to have punished and humiliated two monks by tattooing an obscene verse on their foreheads.
In the eighth century the Pope Hadrian I forbade tattooing of any kind, which is why in the Christian world tattooing only really appeared in the nineteenth century.
JAPAN EARLY 1700
In Japan, as in the west, tattooing was used to mark criminals. Apparently criminals first offences were marked with a line across the forehead, an arch would be added for a second offence and then a third with another line. The three together formed the Japanese character for ‘dog’. It has been said that this is where the ‘three strikes your out’ law originated from. This tattoo marking was used on criminals who had committed serious crimes. These criminals would be shunned by their family and villages because to have been tattooed for your wrong in the eighteenth century was considered a horrible punishment.
By the end of the eighteenth century criminal tattooing went out of favour as it was replaced by other forms of punishment. Criminals had their tattoos covered with bigger, decorative pieces. Which defines the origins of the link between tattooing and the ‘Yakuza’ or Japanese organised crime.
There were strict laws put in place around 1700 where only Japanese royalty were allowed to wear ornate attire. Due to this the Japanese middle class took to having themselves tattooed with elaborate decorative body suits. They however could only show these off in the privacy of their own homes. This tattooing is called ‘Irezumi’ in Japanese.
1691 PRINCE GIOLO – THE PAINTED PRINCE
Prince Giolo also known as The Painted Prince was a completely tattooed Philippine man who was captured at sea in the late 17th Century.
Giolo had been sold twice already as a slave when he came into possession of William Dampier – a buccaneer and naturalist who was sailing the world in search of adventure and wealth.
Dampier supposedly had plans to return Giolo to his homeland – the island of Moangis in the now Philippines. Instead Dampier took the prince to London, England where he exhibited as a ‘freak show’. He was exhibited throughout England under the name “The Painted Prince” It was the first time in 600 years the English had laid eyes on tattooed skin so the prince became quite a show!
Giolo died of small pox in 1692 when he was taken to be examined at the University of Oxford.
1774 Omai "The Noble Savage”
Captain Cook returned to England from one of his voyages to The South Pacific, along with other relics and souvenir’s Cook returned with, “the noble savage”, Omai, a tattooed Polynesian man. Omai became all the rage among London’s elite. He was a human curiosity and sparked a short lived fad of tattooing in discreet places among London’s high class. The procedure at the time was slow and painstaking with each mark being made by a small puncture in the skin by hand with ink added afterwards.
1804 The Original Side Show
In 1804 Russian explorer George H. Von Langsdorff visited the island of Marquesas, where he found a French deserter named Jean Baptiste Capri who had been living among the natives for a number of years. Capri was married and had several children and was heavily tattooed.
Capri returned to Russia with Langsdorff where he displayed himself as the first European tattooed exhibit. He travelled Europe and was examined by physicians as well as being displayed to royalty.
Capri paved the way for the human sideshow.
1820 The White Maori
In the late 1820’s England’s first home-grown tattoo show was that of John Rutherford.
Story has it that Rutherford had been captured by the Maori of New Zealand and was forcibly tattooed.
In The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 8 (Nov 1, 1938) it was said he was saved from New Zealand by Captain Jackson, who when he first laid eyes on Rutherford exclaimed “here is a white New Zealander” to which Rutherford replied in perfect English, “ I am not a New Zealander, I am an Englishman.”
Rutherford returned to England where he travelled the land with a caravan of wonders showing off his tattoos and telling tales of his life in New Zealand.
1841 The First Tattooed Man on Show in America
This is an exert from the book “Tattooing the world – Pacific designs in print and skin “ Juniper Ellis, Colombia University Press, New York, 2008
The 1830s castaway James F. O’Connell sported a full-body tattoo. In the Pacific’s Caroline Islands, the traditional patterns gave him his life and made him fully human. In the streets of New York, on the other hand, women and children ran screaming from his presence, while ministers warned from the pulpit that viewing O’Connell’s tattoos would transfer the marks to any woman’s unborn baby. O’Connell identified himself as an Irishman and gained fame as the first man to display his tattoos in the United States.
19th Century showman, Phineas T. Barnum is said to have established the the first group of unique individuals and oddities. Of this James F.O’connell was first tattooed man ever on show for American audiences. He was dispayed at Barnum’s American Museum, and captivated audiences with his decorated skin and also with exotic tales of his life among the savages of Ponape, in the Caroline Islands.
Thanks to James F. O’Connell and the folk at Barnum’s, travelling sideshows became a part of circus history, and due to railways expanding through America, carnival and circus sideshows displaying tattooed people among other freaks and oddities. With the advent of the railway tattooists and other human attractions connected far more easily and formed a network through the country.
For the tattooists this became a way to show their works to paying spectators, and from there they could hope to attract new customers.
The records of tattooing from this time are largely kept in the form of photos and posters that were used as publicity for the circus and carnivals.
1870’s Prince Constantine
After the success of O’Connell the elaborately embellished Prince Constantine joined Barnum’s great Travelling Esposition. Constantine also known as Captain Contentenus was a Greek man who had spent many years in Burma, he got tattooed with the sole intention of going into show business. His intricate and artistic designs made him the most famous and well paid tattooed man of the era. He was supposed to have earned up to $1000 a week.
1882 The Tattooed Lady
America’s first tattooed lady was Nora Hildebrandt. She was famous not just from her tattoo’s but also as her father Martin Hildebrandt is credited as being America’s first professional tattooist as he opened the first tattoo shop in America in New York in 1846.
Part of Nora’s show was telling tales of her supposed capture along with her father by American Indians, she said her father was forced by the Indian chief Sitting Bull to tie her to a tree and tattoo her head to toe while, this apparently happened every day for 1 year. How correct her story is, I will leave to you to work out.
1891 The Electric Tattoo Machine
“A sailor without a tattoo is like a ship without grog; not seaworthy” – Sam O’Reilly
The New Yorker Samuel O’Reilly patented the first electric tattoo machine in 1891. It is thought to have been a progression of Thomas Edison’s electric engraving pen. This made tattooing faster and far less painful. With this tattooing became more and more popular. Now it was in the mainstream, Tattooing got taken up by the poor, and dropped by the rich.
1911 Sailor Jerry
If you really want a true classic tattoo, you’ll have to go back in time and cross the Pacific. When your tramp steamer hits the port of Honolulu, jump ashore and head set straight to Chinatown. Soon, you’ll hit Hotel Street. You’ll know this by the sudden progression of wide-eyed sailors, foul-mouthed roughnecks, and general sanctioned mayhem. And there, tucked away on a steamy side street, you’ll see the bright red neon glow of “Sailor Jerry’s”- the tattoo shop that marked the fighting men of the Pacific for nearly 40 years. – Sailorjerry.com
Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins was without doubt one of, if not the most famed tattooists to have ever lived. Sailor Jerry learned his craft while travelling the country jumping between freight trains and hand tattooing drifters and the like. He was taught to use the electric tattoo machine by a man called, Tatts Thomas.
Jerry enlisted with, The Great Lakes Naval Academy, where he sailed the globe. While sailing through the ports of Asia he began a life long fixation with Asian art and imagery.
Sailor Jerry settled in Oahu, Hawaii where for the next forty years he practised his infamous style of humorous bold and colourful imagery on the passing military men.
Sailor Jerry’s influence beyond the Grave
Sailor Jerry’s artwork lived on after his death in 1973 not only through his time enduring imagery but also through his protégés, Don Ed Hardy and Mike ‘Rollo Banks’ Malone. It was with them he left his legacy of flash designs.
Hardy went on to establish Sailor Jerry LTD, and eventually produced a clothing line under his name Ed Hardy. In 2004 former Von Dutch designer, Christian Audigier, licensed the rights to produce the supposedly high end Ed Hardy clothing line.
Sailor Jerry regarded tattoos as the ultimate rebellion against ‘the squares’ I feel this is in stark contrast to what the clothing line has come to represent and believe that it has become a mainstream, fad.
While googling reviews of Ed Hardy clothing I came across this quote on the website yelp.com:
“If you wanted to know what wearable nausea looks like, look no further. Ed Hardy clothing provides ample supply of vomit inducing designs adorned with all sorts of embroidery and embellishments that would make even the most model Chotchkie's employee or flare Nazi cringe in awe of the abomination. Fittingly enough, it has also become the unofficial uniform of douche bags nationwide who wear the clothes to proudly display their disposition as opposed to having "douche bag" emblazoned across their foreheads, as well as countless other posers and wannabes hoping to latch on to passing fads in a mindless effort to blend in and subvert their clear lack of individual style”.
I couldn’t have put it better myself. In my opinion Sailor Jerry’s brilliant and iconic style has been high-jacked, sold out and ruined by the masses - and from what I can tell generally worn by those with a heart to faint to actually get tattooed. I imagine he would be rolling in his grave.
1927 Betty Broadbent
Betty Broadbent was one of the most famed of the tattooed ladies. She began her career in 1927 and was inked all over forming a tattooed body suit on her pin up-esque physique. Among the many artists that tattooed her was famous tattooist Charlie Wagner, he had previously patented a new and improved tattoo machine, superior to that of his mentor Samuel O’Reilly.
Broadbent was a star attraction of the Ringling Brothers Circus for many years, and she was the first person to be inducted into the Tattoo Hall of Fame.
1927 The Great Omi
Horace Ridler was born to a well off family in 1892 in Surry, England. He served in the British Army and it’s possible his tattooing began during this time. In 1922 he decided it was time to trade it in for hope of a better future performing. It is said his initial tattoos were extremely crude, and so he went on to start having them done by London’s leading tattooist of the time George Burchett.
His tattoos were big, brutish, thick black lines all over his face and body. The tattoos resembled the stripes of a zebra and he became known as the Zebra Man.
Surprisingly this was very competitive work and Omi succeeded because his look was extremely distinctive and original. He also added to the persona by shaping his teeth into sharp, fang like points, his nose adorned with an ivory tusk though a pierced hole and his ears stretched and pierced. He also concocted wild stories of his tattooing and said he was captured by savages in, New Guinea, who forced it upon him. These tales of capture seem to be a theme!
He went on to be one of the most successful acts of his time, and kept adding to his outrageous appearance with more tattos year by year until his death in 1969.
1930 - 1970 Bert Grimm – The Golden Age of Tattoo
It has been said by many that the golden age of tattoo was the period between WWI and WWII,. Bert Grimm was a colourful part of the golden ages history.
From all I have read on Bert Grimm he sold himself as many of the tattooists and performers that had come before him with wild stories full of embellishment. He claimed to be the greatest tattoo artist ever and from what I can see many believed him. By all accounts what Bert did well was draw in customers and tell tales of tattooing degenerates, delinquents and outlaws, making for highly entertaining listening. Word of mouth spread and Bert officially became a pillar of the golden age of tattoo.
“It was during the ﬁrst part of his three decades in St. Louis when Bert claimed to have tattooed his most infamous customers. Those were the Glory Days of the bank robber – when a guy with a Tommy Gun and a fast sedan was Robin Hood, The Pied Piper and Don Quixote all rolled into one. Flush with hard-earned cash, these characters would leave their remote hide-outs periodically for the closest city to indulge and reward themselves for a job well done. As the legend goes, it was during one of these trips to town that Bert had the opportunity to tattoo none other than Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. In an age when a typical tattoo could cost as little as $.10 for a small piece and as much as $300 for a full-body suit, it can only be imagined what the duo actually paid for their Bert Grimm originals.” – garagemagazine.com Archives: Tattooed by Bert Grimm
WWII Covering up the ladies
During WWII the US government put into effect a law stating that “Indecent or obscene tattooing is a cause for rejection; the applicant should be given an opportunity to alter the design, in which he may, if qualified, be accepted”
This law brought about the rise of the pin-up girl, as men were not allowed to enlist in the Navy with a naked lady it was up to the tattoo artists to come up with creative ways to cover them up. New York’s Charlie Wagner put it well “For going on 50 years, I’ve been turning out ladies, most of them naked, and now all I do is cover them up”
After WWII tattooing became associated once more with the lower rungs of society. Those in the more conservative parts of society began to condemn the state of tattoo parlours, which were fuelled by outbreaks of hepatitis. This eventually ended with many parts of the country putting health code violations into effect, which resulted in many of the tattoo shops being closed down. The parlours moved to parts of The US where it was still allowed, but for a time the damage had been done. Tattooing began to represent juvenile delinquents, illness and generally bad sorts and overshadowed the patriotic image that US service men had instilled.
The summer of love glamorised tattoo’s perception once more, Rock’n’roll and hippy tattoos came onto the scene thanks, in part, to stars like Joan Baez and Janis Joplin as well as tattooist Lyle Tuttle.
As history has it around the late 60’s to 70’s it is where the curtain was drawn on the old school era of tattoo.
What are the Taboos of Tattoo Today?
Tattoo’s have gone through many eras and many changes. Tatoos today are now relatively mainstream with a hint of rebellion that is fading as the masses conform. There is however still a few types of tattoo that raise eyebrows.
Among these are prison and gang tattoos. A Common symbol from this type of tattooing are a tear drop under the eye – apparently this originally meant the wearer had killed someone.
Another tattoo that doesn’t go down well with the general public is that of the swastika which is a common emblem used in relation to neo-nazi movements. The spider webb on the elbow or underarm is supposed to mean the wearer has ‘earnt’ the tattoo by killing a member of a minority. These people are quite obviously the most loathsome of society. Interestingly the web tattoo is now being used as a fashion symbol by people who either ignore or are unaware of its racial symbolism.
MODERN DAY TATTOOING
These days the stigma attached to tattoos has died down. Many people from all walks of life wear images on their bodies, some still to rebel but generally tattooing has become an accepted part of society. It is seen as an art form, and tattooists are often from a fine art back ground. To end my blog entry I will finish up with some images by artists I love. All of which have been influenced by the misfits, sailors, carni-folk, bikers and other such characters from times gone by.
Dutch artist and tattooist Angelique Houtkamp's - "Marie" weebirdy.com