Finding the Right Artist for Your Custom Tattoo Vision
Embarking on the journey of getting a custom tattoo is both exciting and significant. Tattoos are not just body art; they are a fo ...
Buckle up because we have a story for you little one. Today, tattoos are a popular and widely accepted form of body-art. Top tattoo artists enjoy world renowned acclaim for their intricate and original designs. There’s a tattoo design out there for every taste and style. Whether you’re into space-themed tattoos, nature tattoos, fishing tattoos, or traditional tattoos, you won’t be short of choice. But did you know that the tattoo has actually been around for thousands of years? It’s true, people have been decorating their bodies for a lot longer than you might think. Clearly there’s something uniquely human about this practice.
Where did it all begin?
In this article we’ll be covering the entire history of tattoos in America. This is a long and fascinating artistic history not to be missed. We’ll be delving into the tattoos early history and discussing the emergence of American tattoo culture as we know and love today. So, grab a cup of coffee (or a beverage of your choice) and get ready to be inspired.
Let’s start from the very beginning. Body markings can be observed across many historic societies. Interestingly it would appear that the practice emerged in each society independently, suggesting that people have always had a predisposition to mark, decorate, and apply symbolic imagery to the body. In some cases, these markings would have been used to mark people out into sociopolitical and religious groups. In others, body adornment was used as a form of artistic individualism and contributed to early expressions of fashion.
Tattooing can be observed consistently across tribal cultures. Tribal tattoos have since gone on to influence tattoo designs around the world. The word ‘tribal’ here simply refers to any group of people, be it a family, clan, lineage, or any other social, religious, ideological, or geographical alliance.
Throughout history, many of these tribal societies have practiced tattooing. In fact, scientists have physical evidence of this in the form of preserved human remains.
In 1991, on the border between Austria and Italy, Otzi the Iceman was discovered. Otzi is thought to have lived between the years 3370 and 3100 BC. Fascinatingly, the preserved body was found covered in tattoos. 61 vertical lines to be precise. Researchers found that these marks were located on various acupuncture points by tracing charcoal into small incisions on the skin. As such, it is reasonable to infer that tattooing formed part of very early medical and healing practices. One of the experts who examined Otzi was Professor Don Brothwell from the University of York in the UK. Brothwell found that the distribution of dots and crosses on the Iceman’s lower spine, knee, and ankle joints corresponded to areas of strain induced degeneration. This furthers the theory that these markings had a largely therapeutic function rather than holding a symbolic meaning of any kind.
In ancient Egypt, tattoos were a woman’s prerogative. There’s lots of evidence to suggest that women had tattoos on their bodies. These markings are consistently reflected on Egyptian figurines and tomb scenes. Women are often shown with tattoos on their thighs and uncovered mummified remains concur with this. Several female mummies in Greco-Roman burial grounds show these tattoo-like markings. In fact, archaeologists have even found the remnants of what are thought to be ancient tattooing tools dating back to circa 1450 B.C. The meaning of these Egyptian tattoos is open to interpretation. Some say that tattoos were the mark of prostitution, others theorize that tattooing played a therapeutic role during pregnancy and birth.
Polynesia has a rich tattoo history, dating back thousands of years. In fact, nearly everyone in ancient Polynesia was probably tattooed in some way or another. Polynesian societies would have used tattoos to signify status, hierarchy, genealogy, rank, and other social signifiers such as sexual maturity. Over time tattooing developed into a refined art-form across ancient Polynesian culture. Tattoo artists were known as tufaga.
Tufaga learned how to tattoo with tools constructed of sharpened boar teeth, fastened together with turtle shell to a wooden handle. So painful was the process, that it would often take up to a year for tattooed individuals to heal completely!
Polynesian tattoos were imbued with deep meaning. Tattoos to the hand represented spirituality, wisdom, knowledge, and intuition. Tattoos to the upper body symbolized generosity, sincerity, honor, and reconciliation. Tattoos to the lower body were a sign of energy, courage, sexuality, and independence.
Common motifs and symbols included:
Tattooed remains have been found from Siberia to China, Japan to the Americas.
It’s time to get down to business. Tattooing has been around for thousands of years, but when did tattooing in America, as we know it today, really begin? This next section is all about the origins of tattooing culture in America.
American tattooing as we know it today can be traced back to the 1700s. During the 18th century, world exploration was booming. Explorers began visiting the Polynesian islands, where they experienced, first hand, tattooing in action.
When James Cook voyaged to Tahiti, he recalls the body art (or ‘tatau’) practiced by the native islanders. Inspired by these practices, the trend spread across port cities far and wide. Wherever the explorers docked, ‘tatau’ spread like wildfire.
And so tattooing, in the Modern American sense of the word, was born.
The appetite for tattooing caught on fast and, shortly after, the early American tattoo artists started emerging. Figures like C.H. Fellowes, Martin Hildebrandt, and Nora Hildebrandt, became influential figures in early American tattooing, finding a niche market for their designs amongst sailors and soldiers returning from their voyages.
Fellowes is thought to have followed ships on their world voyages. He was the designated tattoo artist, if you will, and would set up in each port to tattoo sailors and locals. By this time ‘getting inked’ had become popular amongst sailors, soldiers, and members of the lower classes.
Did you know?
During the American Civil War, tattoos were used by soldiers as a form of self-identification. In the event of their death, a tattoo would increase the likelihood that their bodies could be identified. Soldiers often opted for a military insignia tattoo or the names of their nearest and dearest.
At the end of the American Civil War, soldiers began commissioning victory tattoos. This was seen as a way to celebrate their survival and wartime accomplishments. By this time, most soldiers and/or sailors were donning a tattoo of some kind or other. Whilst tattooing was still yet to be accepted by the middle and upper echelons of society, body art was already becoming an accepted and celebrated practice amongst the lower and working class.
Today, all that remains of C.H. Fellowes’ work is his sketchbook and tattooing kit which is now under the curatorship of the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut. Fellowes’ sketchbook was also published in 1971 by Pyne Press.
Take a look at this page from C.H. Fellowes’ sketchbook.
Did you know?
Historians believe that tattoos were seen by women like Nora as a route to independence. Women like Nora were reportedly paid as much as $100 per week to perform in these freak shows offering unprecedented financial freedom and a new-found route to liberation.
As technology and machinery advanced, tattoos slowly started to become mass produced. After Martin Hildebrandt set up his New York tattoo shop, the craze spread far and wide. Over the pond in England, a young King Edward VII caught sight of the trend and introduced the concept of tattooing to the aristocracy.
The development of the traditional American tattoo continued through the 19th century. In 1891, the electric tattoo machine was invented after Thomas Edison’s invention of the rotary machine caught the attention of tattooist Samuel O’Reilly. Over a period of 15 years, O’Reilly modified Edison’s design and in 1891 he created the original electric tattoo machine; a design that continues to inspire contemporary tattooing tools today.
As tattooing became mechanized, early tattoo artists began distributing flash sheets and putting together portfolios of their work for clients to peruse. In New York and Detroit two men began forging the tattooing industry that we know and love today. Lew Alberts and Percy Walters were the primary distributors of mail order flash sheet catalogs and articles. These men spread awareness and interest in the art of tattooing, without which the practice would not have achieved the heights of mainstream success it would later enjoy.
The real Golden Age of tattoo design started in the World War II era. During and after the war, tattoos became increasingly mainstream and an accepted part of society. In fact, many of today’s traditional tattoo designs can trace their roots back to the WWII period. With patriotism at an all time high, tattooing forged out an established place in Western culture by the 1950s. More and more, tattoo parlors started springing up on boardwalks and down back streets across the country.
At this time tattooing was still principally a male pursuit. Many tattoo parlors would refuse to tattoo women unless accompanied by a male relative or spouse. Tattoo imagery was also highly censored at this time. Prospective soldiers and sailors with tattoos deemed inappropriate weren’t permitted into the ranks. As such, many tattoo artists had a cover-up job or two on their hands. Cue covering up those naked ladies with dresses.
The Tattoo Times
By the 1970S, Don Ed Hardy’s magazine, The Tattoo Times popularized tribal tattoo designs. Leo Zulueta, a man of Hawaiian and Filipino descent collected photographs and drawings of native tattoo designs and set out to encourage Native Hawaiians to embrace indigenous traditional again. Under Hardy and Zulueta, tribal tattoos were reborn.
With early tattoos mostly embraced by soldiers and sailors, it’s not all that surprising that early American tattoos took an immensely patriotic tone. Looking back on tattoo designs from the 19th and early 20th century, one thing prevails. A love for America. Key themes included nautical symbolism, roses, swallows, anchors, and sharks to name a few. But what was so special about these symbols and what were that actually trying to convey?
Nautical-themed tattoos symbolized the sailor’s life and love of the ocean. Nautical tattoos acted as an emblem, representing a sailor’s desire to survive their perilous journeys and acting as a place to showcase their experiences at sea.
In fact, a tattoo of a fully-rigged ship (such as the image above) is thought to mean that the sailor had been around Cape Horn; a notoriously rough body of water off the southern tip of South America.
Interested in a nautical inspired tattoo design of your own? Take a look at some of our nautically-inspired custom tattoo designs and soak up the inspiration.
Roses are a traditional symbol of love. Traditional designs include the compass rose and the dagger through a rose.
The compass rose was traditionally worn as a good luck charm to help sailors find their way home safely. The dagger through a rose design is thought to represent a sailor’s loyalty and willingness to fight no matter what.
Swallows were another popular design in the early years. Swallows are thought to represent freedom and a safe passage home. The swallow was also a symbol of achievement and prestige. It is thought that sailors earned a new swallow tattoo for every 5000 nautical miles they traveled.
Other popular designs included anchors (to depict constancy), sharks (to symbolize courage), and the American Eagle – a clear demonstration of national patriotism. But not all tattoo designs at the time were overtly symbolic. Some tattoo designs would have been purely aesthetic in nature. One popular design like this – and one that remains popular to this day – was the pin-up girl.
Pin-up tattoos grew to be popular amongst men and women alike. Rather than taking on symbolic meaning, a pin-up tattoo would have been simply a wearable piece of art. The pin-up girl is a classic, wartime, image of female independence and strength. Instead of literally pinning up a picture on the wall, more and more people chose to display these beautiful pin-up girls on their own bodies. In fact, the pin-up remains a popular tattoo design today.
By the 20th century, getting inked had become part and parcel of mainstream culture across America. With each passing decade trends came and went contributing to the rich and unique tattoo artistry that exists today. Throughout the duration of the 20th century, tattoos went from occupying the realm of sailors, to becoming a Hollywood staple, before growing into the accepted art-form that so many Americans know and love today.
The early 20th century was all about the sea and the circus. At this time, tattoos were worm principally by sailors and circus performers. Wider society was yet to get on board with the trend. Instead, tattoos were a way to tell a story and depict a narrative. Sailors used tattoos as signifiers of their experiences, achievements, and as emblems for good fortune at sea. Circus performs wore tattoos to tell a story, attracting crowds with dramatic tales of kidnap.
During the early 20th century, the tattooing process was going through a transition. Some would get tattooed the traditional way (this typically involved ‘stick-and-poke’ methods with a sharp, inked stick). Others would have been lucky enough to experience the newly developed tattooing machine. In 1904, Charlie Wagner patented the very first coil and tube machine, which made getting a tattoo far less painful. Needless to say, the appetite for tattoos started to gradually increase after this.
Did you know?
By the early 20th century, tattooing had become a legitimate occupation. Tattoo artists started emerging here, there, and everywhere. Whilst the majority of tattoo artists would have been men, it was very common for tattooists to practice designs on their wives!
By the 1920S, tattoos were becoming increasingly popular but there was still a lot of stigma around the practice. Tattoos were still the reserve of sailors, carnival folk, and criminals. Most members of society would never dream of getting a traditional tattoo of their own. Until…
Hollywood got in on the action.
Hollywood popularized cosmetic tattoos as a permanent makeup trend. Inspired by the start, more and more women started showing interest in permanent cosmetics. Whilst this was a far cry from the head-to-toe ink and larger designs donned by sailors and circus acts, it marked a distinct move towards mainstream tattoo culture. Many women (often in secret) opted for subtle facial tattooing as an alternative to expensive makeup.
Tattoo culture went through a silent metamorphosis during the twenties. Slowly, slowly, the tattoo went from being an emblem of barbarism to a sign of sophistication and glamour. For the middle and upper classes, getting a tattoo of any kind was still not a thing to shout about, but behind closed doors more and more people were falling for its charms.
In the image above, a woman is having her social security number tattooed onto her back. Yes, you heard right, her social security number. As bizarre as it might seem to us now, this was common practice in the 1930s. When SSNs were introduced in the 30s, people started to worry about being able to memorize their numbers. And so, the SSN tattoo was born.
Believe it or not, getting your SSN permanently tattooed became quite popular. Plus, the practicality of getting your social security number tattooed onto your body gradually started to remove the veil of stigma that remained around tattooing as a whole. Since everybody had an SSN, tattoos were no longer seen as the play-thing of degenerates and criminals. Instead, ink was for everyone. Function and necessity won over the masses.
If the 30s were the age of practicality, then the 40s marked the age of artistry. Once society had recovered from their aversion to tattoos and accepted ink into the mainstream, the possibilities were seemingly endless. The 40s saw an abundance of new tattoo styles, as artists enjoyed their unbounded creative freedoms. With more clients seeking unique tattoos of their own, tattooists had the opportunity to make a name for themselves.
Tattoo artists started incorporating bright colors and bold motifs. In fact, it was in the 40s that some of today’s most iconic designs were born. The iconic ‘Sailor Jerry’ tattoo style developed by tattoo artist Normal Keith Collins has marked the beginning of America’s most iconic tattoo genre – American Traditional. In fact, Sailor Jerry designs are still being requested to this day in tattoo parlors around the country.
Norman Keith Collins was a true pioneer for modern American tattoo artistry. Inspired by American, European, and Japanese designs, Collins developed an entirely new style.
Post WWII, tattoos fast became the embodiment of masculinity and no image speaks more of this atmosphere than the Marlboro man. The Marlboro man was the symbol of American masculinity. In the image below, you’ll be able to notice the Marlboro man’s hand tattoos, typical of returning veterans, clearly on display.
Ink became part and parcel of being a veteran and closely associated with a masculine, military image. During the economic boom that followed the post-war period, many companies just like Marlboro assumed this image in their advertising campaigns. An image that clearly represented the nation’s pride in American troops as well as their strength.
Yet still, the image of the all-American soldier wasn’t enough to completely reverse those deep-rooted negative connotations that had always surrounded tattoo culture. Academic working and writing during the 50s continued to perpetuate a negative stereotype and people donning tattoos continued to face the prejudice of popular opinion.
Perhaps it’s safe to say that that which was lauded on billboards and posters wasn’t necessarily respected in the local neighborhood.
The 1960s marked a monumental shift for tattooing. When, in 1961, Hepatitis broke out in New York, tattoo parlors were first to take the brunt of the accusations. The outbreak was blamed on Cony Island tattoo artist, Fred Grossman and resulted in a city-wide ban on tattooing. Grossman tried to sue the city but was ultimately unsuccessful.
The 60s marked a period of frustration for tattoo artists who were met with a zero-tolerance approach from law enforcement. Just as tattoo was starting to be accepted as a legitimate art form, the hepatitis outbreak landed tattoo artists back at square one. Artists were forced to either relocate outside of the city or risk tattooing in secret.
Perhaps surprisingly, whilst most New York City residents held back from getting tattoos during this time, the rich and famous continued to indulge their creativity. One of the most famous examples is Janis Joplin. Joplin and other celebrities continued getting inked by one of the best tattoo artists at the time, Lyle Tuttle.
The below image shows Lyle Tuttle at work.
By the 1970s, and after the Hepatitis scare of the previous decade, tattoos really started making headway in mainstream society. Despite a rocky introduction into U.S culture, more and more ‘regular’ folk started to embrace the ink. Tattoos were no longer solely the domain of military men, circus acts, celebrities, and gangsters. By the 70s tattoos had finally become the legitimate form of self-expression that we know and love today.
The range of designs widened, with more and more people opting for messages and symbols of peace over nautical, patriotic, or military imagery. As such, the possibilities for artistic intricacy and creative experimentation were through the roof. This was largely, in part, due to the developing counterculture that took root during the decade. Hippy culture embraced tattooing and peace signs became a popular tattoo design.
As confidence grew so did the designs. Full sleeves and bodysuits took off as activists used ink as a way to memorialize their beliefs in perpetuity. The 70s was also the decade of female-led tattoo artistry. More and more women were becoming tattoo artists, bringing with them new influences, imagery, symbolism, and meaning.
The Rock and Roll decade made its mark not just on music, but on almost every facet of American culture. Designs got bigger and brighter. Rock and Roll icons donned impressive designs and their fans naturally wanted in on the action. With such celebrity endorsement, by the 1980s tattoos had finally become accepted across American society. The number of people booking in to get a tattoo skyrocketed. With such a liberation of consciousness, the scene was then set for the wild ride that would become the Punk movement. Body modification was not only no longer frowned upon, it was being celebrated.
By the 90s, celebrities donning tatts could be found everywhere. Tattoos were normalized and increasingly popular amongst pop icons like the Spice Girls (and their fans) and pop-punk bands like Blink 182. By the 1990s women were well and truly part of tattoo culture.
In fact, by 1996, it is estimated that approximately half of those getting tattoos were women. Designs changed with the times. More traditionally feminine designs like butterflies became increasingly popular, along with tribal designs, sun tattoos, and Chinese lettering. The late 90s also saw the rise of trash polka tattoos. With their punk rock styling they took hold of the counterculture.
But even though tattoos were out of people’s bad books, there was still a time and a place for them. In the workplace, for example, visible tattoos continued to be discouraged on the basis that they presented an ‘unprofessional’ image.
By the turn of the millennium one clear trend emerged. The lower back tattoo was born. Love it or hate it, people getting tattoos between 2000 and 2010 were going crazy for the ‘tramp stamp’. Designs carried on from the 90s, with butterflies and yin yang symbols remaining popular choices. But one thing was for certain. To be anyone in the noughties a lower back tattoo was simply part of the uniform.
The 2010s marked a time of tattoo design inspiration. After the lower back tattoos of the noughties, tattoo designs started getting super trendy. People started taking great care not only in the design but in the placement of their tattoos. By 2010, tattoos stopped being a fad and started being taken seriously. Fantastic news for tattoo artists who enjoyed the freedom to create intricate, beautiful designs. In other words, by 2010, the world started seeing tattooing as the art that is really is. A far cry from the stigma endured by tattoo artists and their subjects in the early 20th century. Popular designs that emerged in the 2010s included infinity signs, feathers, armpit tattoos, and the incorporation of tribal patterns into larger, ornate design schemes or sleeves.
Today, tattoo designs continue to evolve and new tattoo inspiration is emerging all the time. Most people today see tattooing as an art-form and means of self-expression. As such attention has shifted to the quality and beauty of a tattoo over its representation of an individual’s social status.
In contemporary America tattoos are donned by people of all walks of life alike. The burgeoning of social media platforms like Pinterest and Instagram have given tattoo artists a platform to display their artistry and talent like never before. More and more young people are feeling inspired to get into tattooing thanks to the sheer variety of tastes that tattoo designs cater for these days.
TV shows like Inked and Ink Master continue to provide a positive platform for tattoo artists and their work. With tattoos now well and truly in the mainstream more and more people are gaining the confidence to go out and get inked.
Plus, with increased awareness and visibility, tattoos are finally starting to lose their workplace stigma. Over the last decade, tattoos in the workplace have been the final frontier of tattoo acceptance. Whilst there is still a way to go, it is increasingly common to find office environments and professional settings that embrace visible body-art.
Tattoo designs have changed dramatically over their thousands of years of existence. One thing that’s clear is that this is a form of self-expression that continues to inspire us. Today, tribal designs remain a popular inspiration. As a society, we are also becoming more aware of issues such as cultural appropriation and the commercialization of cultural identities.
As such, the way we approach traditional designs is likely to morph and change as we learn. Traditional tattoo designs with their roots in indigenous and tribal cultures aren’t going anywhere. It’s our approach that is now changing. More and more tattoo artists and tattoo wearers are realising how important it is to educate themselves on the meaning behind the shapes and symbols.
1. Hand poke tattoos
Hand poke tattoos (otherwise known as stick-and-poke tattoos or machine-free tattoos) are simple designs applied using a freehand needle and ink. This is a clear hark back to tattooing of yester year before the invention of the electric tattooing machine.
As with any tattoo, anyone planning to get a hand poke tattoo should make sure to go to an experienced practitioner in a professional tattoo studio to reduce the risk of infection or blood-borne pathogen transmission.
Hand poke tattooing methods result in beautiful, subtle, sketch-like designs.
2. Nature symbols
Another popular trend for the upcoming decade is nature. Nature-inspired designs incorporating plants, animals, and astronomy are gaining traction. From mountains to rivers and florals, you can’t go wrong with an ode to nature.
3. Spiritual symbols
Spiritual symbols are also proving popular. More and more people are opting to represent their own spirituality or religion in ink. Designs like crosses, starts, mandalas, and lines from sacred texts are typical choices. So, whatever your beliefs, why not pay them homage with a beautiful spiritual tattoo of your very own?
4. Visible tattoos
With tattoos accepted in more and more professional circles, there’s no longer any need to hold back from getting a visible tattoo. Visibility is now super trendy. Celebs like Justin Bieber and Rihanna have in no small part contributed to this growing trend. So, whether it’s on your hands, neck, wrists, or face, if you’re confident it won’t cost you your job then we say – go for it!
5. Line work
Minimalism is all the rage these days. And in the world of tattoos, that means line work. Line work consists of clean, simple lines with minimal shading. It’s modern, it’s cool, and a little bit edgy. Plus, a simple line work tattoo is far less painful and time consuming than lots of shading. It’s a win-win all round. Sometimes simplicity says it best.
Tattoos have no doubt had a long and inky history. Thousands of years long to be precise. Tattoos as we know them today can be traced to ancient tribal societies where they were used for social, political, medicinal, and artistic purposes.
Let’s recap what we’ve covered.
So, there we have it. A long and rich history that has brought us to where we are today. Whether you’re interested in a classic American Traditional design or something more contemporary and minimalist, there’s the perfect tattoo out there waiting for you.
Here at Custom Tattoo Design, we’re passionate about providing people with their perfect piece of art. We know that to lots of people, a tattoo is more than just ink on the skin. It’s a form of self-expression, self-expression, and memory making imbued with meaning.
That’s why we want to get your tattoo just right. Luckily, designing your dream tattoo is simple and easy with Custom Tattoo Design. Once we’ve taken a look at your ideas, our talented artists will turn them into a dream tattoo design. All you have to do is send us your tattoo idea and we’ll send you a quote. We’ll then select the best artist for you to work on your bespoke design and get you the tattoo of your dreams.
Not sure what you’re after?
Check out some of our previous work. From abstract to americana, nature to noir, our portfolio is guaranteed to have something for everyone. Take a browse and don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team with any questions. We’re only a live call, live chat or email away and always happy to help.
Embarking on the journey of getting a custom tattoo is both exciting and significant. Tattoos are not just body art; they are a fo ...
Tattoos are not just ink on skin; they are a form of self-expression, a canvas for personal stories, memories, and artistic vision ...