Tattoo: Start to Present


Tattoos are a funny phenomenon when you come to think about it: permanent artwork needled in to your skin that you carry along for the rest of your life. Painful in the process, but never lost. There are countless reasons why to get a tattoo and countless more who have them. Some get them as a tribute for a loved one they have lost; a way to remember them each day in the morning. I remember a friend telling me about his uncle getting a tattoo of a spider on his wrist, which served the purpose of getting rid of his fear of spiders by facing it everyday until they no longer scared him. Family members are commonly initialed on one’s body, sometimes even an etched out, detailed portrait of a child, grandmother, or pet dog. And sometimes, there simply is no reason. Sometimes, people simply like to serve as a canvas for beautiful or interesting artwork.

In the past, reasons were very different for getting tattoos. “Painted people” introduced to World Fairs, first in Europe and then taken to America. Captured island natives would be shown at these fairs, alongside “The Bearded Lady” and “The Strongest Man Alive”, as a sort of attraction for onlookers since tattoos were so uncommon, unusual, and bizarre back then. This was the very beginning of such a new art and fad.



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After traveling to these exotic islands and over seas where many “painted peoples” were found, tattoos started off among American sailors. Tattoos for sailors was a way of getting a souvenir from places traveled too, most commonly the Pacific Islands. American sailors used to trophy around cool tattoos with different meanings from various trips across seas. The start of tattoos in America is largely attributed to sailors, dating as far back as the 18th century. These tattoos had a very distinct style, a lot more different than tattoos we commonly see today, though people sometimes like to replicate this vintage style. Colors were primarily black and red and lines for styling the tattoo were often thick. These tattoos were very manly as images were predominantly masculine.



Later on, their tattoos often held a lot of symbolism since sailors were usually very superstitious. I can’t really blame them for that since they constantly worked with mother nature’s unpredictable elements with their lives often on the line. So, they thought it was better safe than sorry. Here’s a list of old sailor tattoos and their common meanings:

Milestone Tattoos:

  • Anchor → these were tattooed when a sailor in the Navy would successfully cross and return from the Atlantic Ocean. They also represent and are an icon for stable, unalterable faith because they are what secures the ship. Sometimes you would find ‘MOM’ or ‘DAD’ across it in a banner – reasons for staying grounded


  • Dragon → signified that the sailor had served in a China station or sailed to a China port. A golden dragon showed that the sailor had crossed the International Date Line


  • Fully Rigged Ship → tattooed on a sailor for having sailed around Cape Horn


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A Little Luck:

• Hold Fast → This was meant to give a sailor a good grip and a reminder to Hold on Fast to the lines when the ship faces stormy weather


  • Pig & Rooster → usually placed on the feet or behind the ankles, traditionally symbolizes survival from a shipwreck. Both animals were often kept in wooden crates on board, and if a ship capsizes, these crates would float with the current and most likely get washed up to shore. Another explanation, with a pig tattooed on the left knee and a rooster on the right foot, went with the saying, “Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight.”


Twin Propellers → usually placed tattooed on either butt cheek to prevent from drowning, as they were meant to ‘propel’ the sailor back to shore if he was sent overboard


Swallows & Sparrows → because of their migration patterns, they symbolized the idea of return and ability to find your way home. They also represent every 5,000 miles at sea traveled


Nautical Star → this represents the North Star and symbolized a guide or way back home since it was historically used for navigation at sea


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Crossed Anchors → usually marked between the thumb & index finger, to mark a sailor of being a Boatswain Mate, or an extraordinarily talented deck man. Tattooed on the left hand signals that he sailed all the Oceans, while the right hand shows he sailed the Seven Seas


Harpoon → signal of being a member of the Fishing Fleet


Rope → usually placed around the wrist, marks a sailor of being a Deckhand, current or previously


Guns or Cross Cannons → signifies that the sailor is a member of the Military Naval Service.

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Pin-up girls → life at sea meant leaving behind loved ones like their wives/girlfriends on land, therefore girls tattooed on these men were often a reminder of the ladies waiting for their safe return back


Mermaids → these half-woman, half-fish creatures were said to seduce sailors into the sea, to their eventual death by luring them with their enchanting songs, which showed how enticing the sea was, despite knowing well the dangers associated


Hula Girls → usually inked on a sailor who’d been to Hawaii


 American tattoos made a quick switch from having an “exotic air” to being known for patriotism. This new connotation was because of sailors and military men who were the now public face of ink. In this era, if you were a man, you were automatically assumed to be a sailor in the Navy or that you used to be because it was just so common. These military man and new sense of patriotism revolved around other tattoos that featured images of the American flag or bald eagle and text like “freedom”, “liberty”, or “USA”.


Professional tattoo artist, Martin Hildebrandt, helped spur this patriotic movement. He used to tattoo individuals on both sides of the Civil War! He would tattoo men in service to mark their courage and loyalty to whichever side they chose. He even tattooed many women of this era who were a bit rebellious in their society of the time.


This was known as the Golden Age of Tattooing, the time frame between the two world wars. Things rapidly changed with Samuel O’Reilly patented the first electric tattooing machine in 1891. This new tattooing machine made “getting inked” less painful, cheaper, easier, and faster to get. This then obviously led to the spread of tattooing to the lower class because it was so much more attainable since it was no longer done by hand.


Forget about sanitation in those days though, it was a pretty pretty germ-ridden industry. Sanitation consisted of a dirty bucket of Lysol to clean the machine between customers, who were often cleaned up with a dirty sponge. The bucket wasn’t changed often either; it could be cleaned in a day or week. For needles, they weren’t changed between customers either. They were changed once they became too sharp that they would cut the skin. Poor sanitation led to other bad things. The spread of disease, like hepatitis outbreak, added to a bad reputation tattoos were beginning to gain. Bans on tattooing overall were put into place in various places because of this. Thankfully, regulations tightened slowly from then and later in the 1980’s, which ended the spread of disease.

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Societal outcasts became the public face officially in the 1960’s. Bikers and prisoners were the main carriers of tattoos. The goody-two-shoes middle class of the time feared bikers as a subcultural group, and happened to have a tattoo style very distinct from previous tattoos. This deviant new style began to replace traditional American tattoos usually gotten by devoted military men. Ever seen the movie “Grease” or “Outsiders”? Well, there you go. The feared group of leather-jacket rebels:

tumblr_lmmjcnuNFR1qahzo3o1_500Morvan06Woman and Biker in Her Bar

Convicts and Chicano gang members were moving into the public eye along with these greasers. They heavily practiced homemade tattooing, causing a large association between the tattoo art and dangerous groups. Tattoos also became popular in prisons, further adding dirty look the already condemned rep.


Tattoo culture was therefore split into a bunch of different groups as the sixties came to an end. Servicemen, gang members, convicts, bikers, and some working class men and women. Even though bikers, gang members, and convicts were a minority, they were still the public face of tattoos during this period since they got a lot of publicity and attention for the times they would break the law or do anything dangerous.  Working people continued to get tattoos, but tattooing became more and more associated with deviants, criminals, and the socially insignificant. This solidified bad opinions of tattoos in the media, in scientific journals, and in the public’s imagination. Seemingly tattoos were for deviants solely, but that wasn’t the case. Tattooing just gained a bad standing.



Tattoos changed as the peace movement approached. There was a new meaning of rebellion that was emerging as the 60’s were coming to an end and the 70’s were moving in. This change encompassed things like imagery of peace symbols, mushrooms, and zodiac symbols (pisces, scorpio, aries, etc.). Peace lovin’, war hatin’ hippies represented tattoos during that time and gave tattoo culture a different revolutionary appearance.


Typical tattoo artists were changing and being replaced by refined artists with a true passion for the visual arts. Instead of traditionally trained tattoo artists, new young adults, both men and women, with worthy artist experience began to enter the new popular profession. Now, the middle class found tattoos even more attractive. Sailor Jerry, who previously tattooed sailors, contributed to the favorable surge of tattoos during the seventies.  He wanted to associate more with improving and refining tattoo culture. Other famous and well-known tattoo artists like Paul Rogers and Joe Lieber sought after the same thing. These noteworthy men thought that tattooists in the United States were copycats and that they didn’t have a unique touch. They wanted to bring about true talent in tattooists and tattoo parlors.

Paul Rogers


“Sailor Jerry” (Norman Keith Collins)


Joe Lieber


 Lyle Tuttle was another key player in the Tattoo Revolution. He acted as a main factor in bringing about mainstream media attention to tattooing. He tattooed increasing amounts of hippies and celebrities during the Vietnam era, then took advantage of the media by launching a huge pro-tattooing publicity campaign that the trade had ever seen. Tuttle’s tattoo art endeavors and little tattoo shop, located in Los Angeles, California, which opened back in 1957, were featured in well-read magazines like Life and Time, along with many other local newspapers.

Lyle Tuttle




The image of tattoos were entirely different after this certain revolution. Countless negative connotations were replaced by an art with much wider appeals. Being exclusive mark of bikers, punks and thugs, weren’t the thing anymore. Typical, middle class individual began to challenge that and take on tattoos for their own. During the seventies, the aggressive, fearful, and prominently masculine imagery morphed into an art that was more aesthetically feminine. This new wave represented liberation and freedom of societies marks and expectations.
Tattoo, the whole form of art, is still seen continuously modifying, transforming, and improving through present day. With today’s standards, can you believe that tattoos used to be considered a hallmark of American deviance? I can’t. Tattoo culture has gone through drastic changes, even in recent decades. For many young Americans today, tattoos have taken on an entirely different meaning than previous generations who wouldn’t consider tattoos.
The number of Americans with tattoos generally range from one in ten adults, to one in five. Yet tattooing isn’t a new phenomenon, the amount of people who bare tattoos has grown appreciably and is continuing to increase. Research polls have found that twenty-three percent of Americans have at least one tattoo and 32 percent of people, from the ages 30 to 45, bare at least one tattoo. Other polls from 2006 have indicated that 36 percent of people ages 18 to 25, and 40 percent of those who are 26 to 40, have at least one tattoo. Since then, these numbers have most likely increased. With all of the media attention put on tattoos today, there is no doubt that the tattoo has boomed. If you just glance around, it’s clear that tattoos are “…no longer the designated marking of gang members, garage mechanics, guys who are admirably confident that they will have the same girlfriend forever and Hollywood outliers like Angelina Jolie and Lena Dunham (Kaufman).” Tattoos have become a norm within society, but still companies are unwilling to accept that reality and the people within this new norm.

Celebrities, even the A-listers, bare tattoos without a second thought about it. They inspire their die-hard fans to get tattoos just like them. These celebrities include people like Angelina Jolie (>13 tattooes), Justin Bieber (>45), Rihanna (23), and the like. There is a whole fan-fare that surrounds celebrity tattoos. If you take a look online or in a tabloid magazine, you’ll see pictures of celebrities that have their tattoos circled and identified. You can sometimes even find a whole spread on a celebrity’s tattoo collection in some magazine.

Angelina Jolie Tattoosrihkarforgive-tattoo-justin-bieber-296183

Besides movie stars and singers, models are showing off their tattoos, which used to be unheard of ten years ago. Cool, grunge stores like Urban Outfitters, H&M, and Forever 21 sell their clothing and accessories with model advertisements shamelessly showing their new ink. Some famous models that have shown off their tattoos include Cara Delevingne, Kate Moss, and Heidi Klum. But these models aren’t limited to women; some well-known male models flaunting tattoos are Miles Langford, Matt McGlone, and Stephen James. If these people are the face of where we shop, why wouldn’t we want to get tatted up?


The Adversity and Challenges Faced:

The amount of frustration and anger employees and others who are searching for jobs face is too today. Those who want to get a job in law enforcement feel the especially strict rules when it comes to body art. So many people have spend years and thousand of dollars on personal tattoo art in order to get their tattoos just right. But when your’e trying to join in on such a strict workforce, like the Marine Corp or a Police Department, you’re immediately forced to get any visible tattoo art removed, or else you can’t be accepted. It is an even more painful procedure to get a tattoo removed than actually getting the tattoo done itself, but many people have to go through this pain in order to do what they want. To me, it seems like a waste of money, time and pain. Your’e spending money, time, and effort to get a tattoo done, and even more to get countless removed. It just doesn’t seem fair to be forced to remove something that has become a part of your flesh and skin. The grand spectrum of people with tattoos overrule those trying to get strict positions that are expected to get their artwork erased. This just means that such positions need to loosen up their strict expectations when there are a majority of people that no longer have a blank canvas of skin. That’s just not a part of the changing face of modern society and culture today anymore. The Marine Corps have placed bans on “excessive body art” for new recruits. It’s funny how that crackdown is taking place at a time when large, excessive tattoos are more popular than ever. Recently, a study of dermatology found 89% of the men and 48% of the women who wear tattoos have conspicuous and sometimes outlandish designs on their hands, necks, arms, legs, toes and feet. This means more visible tattoos; they really are popular spots for a tattoo. Why wouldn’t you want to show off the cool new tattoo you got on your wrist or arm? Workplaces need an update in order to keep up with modern society’s changing values.

Tattoo Removal: Ouch!
Plus, tattoos aren’t removed in just one sitting. It takes multiple visits and painful procedures to carry out the deed.


Tattoos today are such a main component of American culture, and cultures elsewhere. There are tons of spokespeople and pro-tattoo populations of people in society, even magazines exclusively written on tattoo culture. Tattoos today are seen as sophisticated, artsy, and especially meaningful. Tattooing is an increasing profession that many young and talented generations are looking towards right now. Not only that, but a hobby and passion that many have taken up and spent their time on practicing and perfecting. Tattoos were once seen as barbaric and deviant, they certainty aren’t represented by those means any longer. The key right there is that they ‘used to be’, which isn’t apparent anymore. Corporations need to widen their views and accept this grand societal change and new era of culture existent in society today.


“Tattoos are like a map to your life” -David Beckham

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