Archaeologists have unearthed evidence that tattooing began thousands of years ago in multiple civilizations around the world, but how did it arrive in America?
Tattooing was originally used by northern Europeans until it was banned in 787 AD by Pope Hadrian, but the Britons continued to tattoo themselves until 1066, when the Normans invaded with their disapproval of tattooing. Tattoos would not be seen again in Western culture until 1691, when William Dampher, a sailor and explorer, brought a tattooed Polynesian to London to be displayed as a money making attraction, leading to a revival of the art.
In the late 1700s, Captain Cook brought another tattooed Polynesian to London. This time, tattooing became a fad, but the process was slow and painful and everything was done by hand. In 1891, however, Boston-based Samuel O'Reilly invented an electric tattooing machine. Based on Thomas Edison's electric pen, this machine punctured the skin with a needle, quickly and easily. Now, tattoos became available to everyone, which reduced the appeal of tattoos to the upper classes. Thus, tattooing gradually lost respect, and the art was pushed underground.
Tattooing in the US began to flourish around 1900, when O'Reilly opened a tattoo shop in New York City's Chatham Square and took on an apprentice, Charlie Wagner. After O'Reilly's death, Wagner teamed up with Lew Alberts, a wallpaper designer, to create tattoo flash art. The practice grew in popularity as wives became walking advertisements for their husbands' livelihoods, and cosmetic tattooing became the rage. With the Prohibition and then the Great Depression, the center of tattooing moved to Coney Island, although other shops popped up in cities near military bases. Soon, tattoos became a way to show off where the wearer had traveled.
Through the 1900s, tattoo art suffered setbacks due to negative associations and outbreaks of disease. New York City even shut down numerous tattoo shops due to health code violations. In the late 1960s, Lyle Tuttle used his media savvy to reintroduce tattooing as a perfectly respectable ancient art form.
Over the centuries, the history of tattoos shows varying levels of popularity and credibility, even since their relatively recent introduction to the US in the late 1800s. Today, however, tattooing is quickly gaining credence as a fine art, enjoyed by thousands of people across the country.