The History of Tattoo Part 2: The Americanization (Westernisation) of Tattoo

Here’s the continuation in my series The History of Tattoo, originally written in Norwegian for an international tattoo chain. Did you miss The History of Tattoo Part 1: Polynesia and New Zealand? If so: I recommend that you read Part 1 first because, like most historical lessons, this one is also in chronological order. In the first part we learned about the Maori traditions and how Captain James Cook and other explorers & sailors unknowingly brought “ta-tu” or “tatau” from Polynesia & New Zealand to the Western world. Now we’ll have a look at the cultural appropriation and the growth that took place in these early days of tattoo. 

The History of Tattoo Part 2: The Americanization (Westernisation) of Tattoo

The Americanization (Westernisation) of Tattoo:

The first known professional tattoo artist in the States (and most likely in the West in general) was Martin Hildebrandt and he established a permanent tattoo shop in New York already in 1846. Hildebrandt didn’t only tattooed sailors, but also soldiers on fighting both sides of the American Civil War, and one can safely say that he played an important role in what was to become the tradition of tattooed American military personnel.

This is a woman I met that had this old-school, pin-up style, rock'n'roll tattoo. Totally awesome!

This is a woman I met that had this old-school, pin-up style, rock’n’roll tattoo. Totally awesome!
She also had a Dinosaur Jr t-shirt! Photo: Cardinal Guzman

After the Spanish-American War came a new clientele emerged, tattoos were the latest craze, furor and in-thing among the European high society who (just like the sailors I told about in the first part), had their first clashes with tattoos on their travels to the Far East.

The English tattooists George Burchett and Tom Riley tattooed, according to Burchett, dozens of English and European members of the aristocracy. Burchett wrote in his memoirs in 1958 that the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) started this trend, which lasted until the beginning of WWI.

Up untill 1890, tattoos were still a handicraft (where they used the methods taught in Polynesia) – a process that was time-consuming and costly. In 1891 “Professor” Samuel O `Reilly patented the first electric tattoo machine, based on the perforating pen invented by Thomas Edison (Thomas Edison’s electric pen was the first electric motor driven appliance produced and sold in the United States, developed as an offshoot of Edison’s telegraphy research). So, interestingly enough, the invention of the telegraph is indirectly related to the rising popularity of tattoos in the Western world.

Thomas Alva Edison. U.S. Patent 196,747, Stencil-Pens. Later adapted to be a Tattoo machine. Illustration: Wikipedia

Thomas Alva Edison. U.S. Patent 196,747, Stencil-Pens. Later adapted to be a Tattoo machine. Illustration: Wikipedia

With the invention of the tattoo machine, which allowed the tattooist to use multiple needles simultaneously for contouring and shading, the American tattoo was style born: solid black lines, usually made with five (or more) needles; heavy black shading, and a splash of color (at first black and red, and later also blue and green was available).
Tattoos made with the new tattoo machine was less painful, less expensive and easier and faster to create, and this contributed greatly to the prevalence of tattooing in the lower classes and the subsequent surrender of tattooing among the rich.

The first tattooists were typical working-class men with no artistic training. Some were sign painters (here, one can argue that sign painting was a learned craft and that historically, apprenticeships were the means of learning the craft), some learned to tattoo in the circus or within the carnival community, and many answered ads in men’s magazines that promised easy money through tattooing.
For instance, “The Zeis School of Tattooing” (Milton Zeis) provided a letter correspondence course in tattooing in the 1950’s, where they said that:

“Tattooing is so simple that even a child can make good tattoos.”

Although most of the tattooists in the early days didn’t distinguished themselves as great artists, there were some names that stood out: Cap Coleman, Paul Rogers, Percy Waters, Robert Shaw, Bert Grimm, Charlie Wagner and Sailor Jerry (Norman Keith Collins). Their designs were classic, and their influence on contemporary tattoo can still be seen.

The Classical American Eagle. Photo submitted by Bob Schlaefer.

Classic American: The Eagle. Photo submitted by Bret Hooyman.

Typically enough customers selected tattoo design from sheets that were hanging on the walls of the tattoo shop – this is what we call flash tattoos. These designs follow a certain recipe, and we found (and still find) the same motifs on the walls of virtually any tattoo parlor, although they were often drawn with slight variations.

The tattooist who by many is considered to be the first to market these flash sheets were Lewis «Lew-the-Jew» Alberts, a wallpaper designer and tattoo artist born in Newark, New Jersey in the 1880s. Although the tattooists signed their own flash papers, other tattooists quickly plagiarized new design. They made small modifications to the motif and called it their own, and for that reason it is currently difficult to determine the origin of most of these tattoo designs.

«Lew Alberts was born in Newark, New Jersey in the 1880s. Alberts was said to have been a wallpaper designer before his enlistment into the U.S. Navy. He learned to tattoo on his fellow shipmates during the Spanish-American War. Tattoo legend has it that he was appalled by the quality of tattoo designs available to the public, so upon his return to the states he settled in the Chatham Square area of New York City where he began to redesign tattoo flash.»

So, where were the women in this period? From the end of the glory days of the carnivals, where tattooed men and women went around as circus attractions, and until the 1970s, women were largely absent from the tattoo scene.

The norm was to deny women tattoos. Luckily that has changed. Photo submitted by: Lori McDonald

The norm was to deny women tattoos. Luckily that has changed. Photo (with a more contemporary tattoo style) submitted by: Lori McDonald

The norm was to deny women tattoos. The policy was: «A woman can not get a tattoo as long as she is not older than 21, married and accompanied by her husband.»
The exception was if the woman was a lesbian, but they still had to be over 21 and able to prove it. In the uptight and intolerant 50s there were just too many scenes with irritated husbands, outraged parents, angry boyfriends and angry lovers, which made it necessary to accommodate female customers with the greatest caution.

The tattooists took it as a task to prevent the «nice girls» (in other words: beautiful, heterosexual, middle class girls) to exceed the decency limits that were valid at the time, and make sure that the girls didn’t degrade themselves to sluts.

Eventually the presence of tattooed lesbian women through the 50’s led to two things:

  1. Tattoo evolved into a culture among lesbians women and, as a consequence;
  2. This again led to the fact that tattooed women in general were not accepted.

The Tattoo culture in the 1940’s – and 50’s was mainly a masculine world. Sterilization was non-existent: a bucket of dirty water diluted with Lysol was used to clean the machine between customers and a dirty sponge used to wipe the client’s arm before, during and after the tattoo.
Sometimes the water in the bucket was changed daily, sometimes on a weekly basis.

American tattoo today, the style has developed since the early days. Photo by Bob Schlaefer

American tattoo today, the style has developed since the early days. Readers photo submitted by Bob Schlaefer

Lysol disinfectant was, by marketers, said to be an effective countermeasure to the influenza virus, great for washing sick-rooms and it was also being marketed as a feminine hygiene product: they claimed that vaginal douching with a diluted Lysol solution prevented infections and vaginal odor, and thereby preserved youth and marital bliss. This Lysol solution was also used as a birth control agent, as post-coital douching was a popular method of preventing pregnancy at that time.

The ink that was used came from a common glass and was not changed between customers. The needles were not changed between customers: they were only replaced when they were so sharp that they cut the skin.

Related posts:


Punk and neo-tribal body art, Daniel Wojcik, University Press of Mississippi
Bodies of inscription, Margo DeMello, Duke University Press, Durham&London 2000
Skin Shows – the art of tattoo, Chris Wroblewski, Virgin Books

Online sources:

Thanks goes out to:
+Bob Schlaefer
+Lori McDonald
+Tori Jones
The photographs & text in this post may not be copied or reproduced without the prior written permission.

31 thoughts on “The History of Tattoo Part 2: The Americanization (Westernisation) of Tattoo

  1. Fascinating post. I have one tattoo, which is a single dot on the back of my left hand – a boy did it when I wasn’t expecting it with an ink pen in a life drawing class at school.

  2. I see more and more people with them. I couldn’t do it. I guess I’m too old fashion. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Very nicely written! I went back and read part one too – I have always found tattoos very interesting but I have never got one myself. Always interesting to hear more about the history and practices.

    • Thanks. I feel that my posts are always better when I write them in Norwegian first and of course: sitting down, doing research, reading & slowly developing a post also helps a lot! (it’s kind of like cooking: slow cooking = more flavor).

      I’m glad you went back and read the first part as well. It is (in my humble opinion) a good post, but it hasn’t been read by that many. Also, like I mentioned in this post, there’s a connection between them that elaborates the big picture.

  4. Wonderful information. I have 3 tattos, one has faded away as it has no black outline. (p.s. this may be a dupe comment, for some reason FF has trouble w/ knowing you are logged into WP)

    • No problem, it was no duplicates anywhere: Firefox seems to work perfectly fine.

      Glad you like the post, feel free to submit photos of your tattoos for my next post in this series (cardinalguzman gmail dot com) or look me up on Google+

  5. Great posts. I used to abhor tattoos, and now find them fascinating….but I always wonder what they are going to look like when the person has aged and the skin is no longer taut, but wrinkled and loose. Not such a pretty thought.

  6. Mighty interesting! Do you have a picture of your tattoos? I’ve been contemplating getting one for a long, long time now. The permanence scares me… Sigh.

  7. Wow, this is such a well written, put together story. U did such a great job telling the history of the tattoo. Lysol as birth control.. ugh! We will for sure link think article to any tattoo posts we do in the future!

    Straight to the point! And educational, always great posts from the Cardinal!

    The Eye

    • LInks are great, I love links 🙂
      The thought of Lysol as birth control is just insane.
      All the things people have tried during history just to be able to have fun without making babies!

  8. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge: Merge | Cardinal Guzman

  9. Thank you very much for your History of Tattoo. I never read it that well before. 🙂

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