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Tattoos 101 > View Lessons

The American Century of Tattoo

Tattoo history in North America is the story of a move from counter culture to mass culture. By the beginning of the 20th century tattoos had moved beyond their roots as spiritual and cultural signifiers, and garnered a bit of a dark reputation.

by netbetty

April 29, 2005

In the late 1800s tattooing enjoyed a brief passion among the titled classes in the U.K. Devotees included the Duke of York (later King George V), who had a dragon inked on his arm in 1882, and Winston Churchill's mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, who wore a snake tattooed on her wrist.

But tattooing really came of age in the United States, where the journey of tattooing from the fringe to the mainstream travelled with circus sideshows, marched across the world and back with military men, stayed alive thanks partly to outlaw biker gangs and took the spotlight as musicians and actors got inked and everyone else wanted to follow along.

The German tattoo artist, Martin Hildebrand, opened his tattoo shop in New York City in 1846. There he inked designs on sailors, and he also traveled to Union and Confederate camps to tattoo soldiers who fought on both sides of the Civil War.

Civil war tattoos included patriotic symbols such as images to commemorate major battles. These soldiers made an impression upon their return to New York.

The invention of the tattoo machine, back-to-back wars, and a fashionable demand for tattoos made the art lucrative for a group of tattooers in the latter half of the 1800s.

Chatham Square in New York City's Bowery was the epicentre of the tattoo world in the United States. It was an area where tenements were crowded with new Americans, and where the population swelled as sailors disembarked from ships docking at the southern end of Manhattan. Chatham Square roiled with the amenities to serve them: gin joints, burlesque theatres and cheap hotels.

Samuel O'Reilly, who is credited with the invention of the electric tattoo machine in 1891, set up his shop in Chatham Square. He was able to make a good living using what he called his Electric Engraving Pen.

The electric tattoo machine revolutionized the art of putting ink into skin by reducing the time to make a design exponentially. The subsequent advent of tattoo equipment suppliers helped bring standardization to the industry.

O'Reilly and his compatriots inked sailors off to the Spanish American War quickly and profitably. In the old days sailors used to while away their time aboard ship pricking designs in each other's skin. Navy men would get tattoos as souvenirs, like Chinese dragons and religious icons on Mediterranean tours.

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