History of Tattoos

North American Tattoo History is Just Part of the Tattoo History Timeline

The history of tattoos in North America is just part of the long history and origin of tattoos right across the world. According to a recent Nielsen poll, one in five North Americans has a tattoo and of those, over 90% do not regret getting ‘inked’ and becoming part of tattoo history culture.

It’s hard to believe but tattoos have had an on again off again history in North America and in other parts of the world. The culture of tattoos has been popular at some times and banned at others depending on the flavour of the day. For example, it might be hard to believe but giving someone a tattoo was banned in New York City from 1961 until 1997, some 36 years later. In the early days of North American tattoo history body art was often associated with seedy places and people. Was the ban in NYC caused by a fear of hepatitis B or was it an attempt to clean up neighbourhoods before the New York World’s Fair? No one seems to know.

No longer just the domain for drunken sailors in foreign ports, tattoos have penetrated mainstream America since the late 1800s following a self-branding trend that surfaced in England in the 1860s. The Prince of Wales was famous, or infamous, for getting in on the action with a cross tattoo that reflected an old medieval tradition used by crusaders.

The Origin of Tattoos in North America

Martin Hildebrandt is part of North American tattoo history. He opened one of North American’s first tattoo shops in New York City in 1870. This made it possible for everyday people to acquire a tattoo without having to travel to exotic foreign destinations. The history of tattoos in America suggests that soldiers going off to war were regular customers in tattoo shops. They’d want to have body art that reminded them of home or boldly declared their allegiance to the nation. Eagles and other patriotic symbols were quite popular with this gang.

North American tattoo history was for the most part a big city experience. The nether regions of the country and small town America were often introduced to tattoo culture by the popular traveling circus. Some circus performers would be covered in body art and be advertised as bizarre attractions. Such sights were far removed from the more subtle origins of tattoos across the globe.

While men often displayed their tattoos boldly, women for the most part were more discrete as the history of tattoos in North America made its way through time and the culture of the day. The buttoned up 1950s and early 1960s saw the tattoo tradition remain subdued. Certain groups such as biker gangs had close relationships with tattoos. Biker gals often acquired tattoos that suggested ownership by, or submission to, their biker man. By the 1970s the history of tattoos in America became more mainstream and ‘the macho world of ink’ was opened to women in new and empowering ways. More subtle and feminine designs became popular and women were accepted into the realm of tattoo artists.

But What Is the Origin of Tattoos? Where Did They Come From?

The origin of tattoos begins more than 8000 years ago.  Many cultures and traditions throughout history have used the tattoo for a variety of purposes.  Tattoos have been a part of the human experience from ancient times to the present and thus it’s difficult to nail down the exact origin of tattoos.

The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian tradition and language.  ‘Tatau’ was the word the Tahitians used for tattoos. Captain James Cook who landed on the islands in the 1769 was fascinated by the many tattooed bodies he and his crew witnessed.  His reports and the tattoos acquired by his adventurous crew cemented our use to the word ‘tattoo’ that replaced words such as ‘painting’ or ‘scaring’ that had been used previously. Captain Cook’s return to England after the trip sparked a craze for tattoos in English high society. It’s been rumoured that Queen Victoria had a tattoo of a tiger fighting a python placed discretely out of sight upon her body.

Here are some examples of the use and origins of tattoos in various cultures:

  • Mummies found from the Moche culture of Peru (100-800 AD) were found to have about 30% of the both male and female population tattooed.
  • Otzi, the mummified Iceman of the Alps, thought to be covered in ice and snow for over 5000 years had a number of tattoos on various parts of his body.
  • Many mummies from the ancient kingdoms of Egypt displayed a wide array of tattoos that represented symbols for spirituality, sexuality and fertility.
  • In the Middle Ages, crusaders had the Jerusalem Cross tattooed on their chests before heading off to the Holy Land so if they died in battle they’d get a Christian burial.
  • Roman soldiers posted to Hadrian’s Wall in ancient Britain had military tattoos.
  • Greeks and Romans tattooed their slaves and mercenary soldiers to discourage their escape or desertion.
  • The Nazis tattooed all of their political and religious prisoners during the Holocaust.
  • The Japanese, as far back as the 7th century tattooed criminals.
  • The Maori aboriginals of Australia have always sported a wide array of tattoo styles.

Obviously, with so many cultures using tattoos as part of their traditional life it’s difficult to find the exact origin of tattoos.  But we do know who made it easier to create tattoos. It was that famous American inventor Thomas Edison who invented a stencil machine in 1876 which was adapted by Thomas O’Reilly and patented in 1891 as the basis of modern tattoo equipment.

Ink Living Color Tattoos Respects the Origins of Tattoos

When you’re looking for a respected and reliable tattoo shop in Southern Ontario you need to make your way to Ink Living Color Tattoos at 4750 Yonge Street in North York. We have several talented tattoo artists who share a reputation for excellence and healthy practices and respect the origin of tattoo traditions. Give us a call at 647-350-4010 or drop us a line at [email protected]. We’ll be glad to discuss the design for your tattoo and show you the quality of some of our excellent work.