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A (very) Brief History of Tattooing - & why we should give a shit.

Updated: Feb 16

So you've got a tattoo. Maybe you got a small personal design, picked something off the tattoo shop wall, or went for a full sleeve. Whether you're a collector or a dabbler, you've chose to adorn your body with permanent art. But how many of us really think about the long, continuous thread that connects each and every tattoo through history?

Tattooing is, after all, "As ancient as time and as modern as tomorrow." Dating back thousands of years across every continent and nearly every culture, humans have chosen to permanently adorn themselves with status symbols, signs of religious beliefs, amulets for protection, and presumably just to look cool, attract mates, and scare enemies.

The oldest physical evidence of tattooing was found on the body of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5,200 year old mummy discovered in the Alps between Austria and Italy. The ancient Egyptians used tattoos to indicate status, protect women during pregnancy and childbirth, or to serve as a form of ritual healing with tattoos found on female mummies dating back to around 2000 B.C. In Polynesia tattoos are deeply embedded in the cultural fabric with complex designs covering large swaths of the body that serve to signify social status, identity, and genealogy.

The spread of tattooing in the Western world can be traced back to the 18th century when explorers and sailors such as Captain James Cook encountered the tattooed peoples of the Pacific Islands. Sailors began getting tattooed for identification, as souvenirs of their voyages, or as symbols of their experiences at sea, then went home to show their new tattoos off.

Modern electric tattooing was jumpstarted around 1875 with Thomas Edison's invention of an electric engraving pen. Though not intended for tattooing it directly lead to Samuel O'Reilly's 1891 electric tattoo machine, the first held patent for an electric tattooing machine and heavily based on Edison's pen. Previously, tattoo artists had been able to perforate the skin about two or three times per second. O’Reilly’s device could perforate the skin at an incredible 50 times per second. According to Inked Magazine, the tattoo machine “completely revolutionized the industry,” and in the 130 years since, the device hasn’t even changed a whole lot.

Traditional tattooing, or being traditional, doesn’t mean staying stuck in the past. It means nurturing something that came way before you because you deeply hope that it will continue way after you. It’s about being in the middle, not being at the end. You‘re not initiating something. - Dan Higgs

There are now thousands of amazing Tattoo Artists tattooing people from all walks of life all over the globe. No longer is tattooing reserved for sailors, prisoners, prostitutes, or the fringes of society. The artistic and technological boundaries constantly pushing tattooing to new and innovative heights spawning new and derivative styles. Traditional, Neo-Traditional, Realism, Hyperrealism, Fine-Line, Abstract, Surrealism, and countless other styles are all options today with more popping up almost daily. However, when thinking of the history of electric tattooing specifically we start with and typically think about Traditional Tattooing, a style still very popular today and one that has developed many branches and variations through the years.

Traditional, or American Traditional, is a style that has direct links to the imagery typical of the late 1800s through the mid 1900s and is characterized by bold line work, lots of black shading, and solid fields of color in simplified designs that are built to last. However, as Dan Higgs explained in his interview with Ed Hardy, "Traditional tattooing, or being traditional, doesn’t mean staying stuck in the past. It means nurturing something that came way before you because you deeply hope that it will continue way after you. It’s about being in the middle, not being at the end. You‘re not initiating something."

In this way we can start to answer the question of why we should give a shit about tattoo history. As Tattoo Artists we owe it to our craft to have knowledge and respect for those who came before and paved the way for us to continue and expand on this art we care so deeply about. It's about taking care of tattooing -- protecting and expanding so that tattooing will continue long after us. Having knowledge and respect for tattooers like Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins, Percy Waters, Amund Dietzel, George Burchett, Ed Hardy, Lyle Tuttle, Jackie Gresham, Deb Yarian, Roy Boy Cooper, Mike Malone and countless other innovators we can learn from and build on the foundation they laid, pushing tattooing into the future and keeping it from dying.

As Tattoo Artists, collectors, and enthusiasts, understanding the history of tattooing enriches our appreciation for this ancient form of expression, highlighting its deep cultural and personal significance. By studying tattoo history we recognize tattoos not merely as fashion statements or trends, but as a complex language of symbols and stories that are woven through human history, embodying rituals, beliefs, and identities. Awareness of this fosters respect for the diverse meanings of tattoos and enables us to appreciate the art form beyond superficial aesthetics.

In understanding the evolution of tattooing we can connect with the innately human desire for self-expression and acknowledge tattooing as a timeless and transformative art form that transcends boundaries and provides a window into the shared and diverging aspects of the human experience.


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