If you want a tattoo, what is the first step? Yes, yes… you have to decide on a design and a location to place it, but what’s the first step after you’re really ready to get one? You have to decide on a parlor – and most particularly, an artist. While this may be a painstaking process for some, others just drive down the main strip of their area and stroll into the first parlor they see. Generally, tattoo parlors are pretty easy to be found. They’re normally located in a centralized area, close to bars, pubs, restaurants, and clubs. Perhaps in the square or in a strip center that holds other popular businesses. While quality and price can differ between these parlors, there is one thing that can be said about all modern tattoo shops – they’re not hard to find.
But this wasn’t always the case.
When tattooing was reintroduced to Western Civilization in the late 1600s – early 1700s, it was accepted with a slightly bitter taste. While it was no longer thought of as just belonging to savages and criminals, it did seem to be reserved for sailors who traveled to the lands and islands which still performed the art form. As time went on, and these sailors began tattooing more and more of their bodies, tattooing became associated with another profession – the circus.
During the early period of tattoo’s reemergence, the art form was seen quite frequently on display in the circus environment. The trend started with Frenchman Jean Baptist Cabri, who was found fully tattooed on the Marquesas Islands after deserting his crew during a voyage. Brought back to Europe by a Russian expedition, Cabri began touring with a local circus fair in 1804. After the display of such body art stirred a large audience, those in the circus industry began employing tattooed individuals frequently. Those with an exorbitant amount of tattoos were often put on display, others merely performed in a more traditional sense – carnie, juggler, et cetera.
But, for those who did not travel to the so-called uncivilized lands found it difficult to get tattoos. Tattoos, while fascinating, were still seen as sleazy – as they were mostly found on circus ‘freaks’ and sailors who spent long batches of time at sea. There were no schools teaching the practice, no shops to apprentice. The art form was learned on the down-low, so to speak. Most were quiet about their hidden past times, making it hard to find a local artist willing to ink your designs. At this point, the process was still being done by hand – each individual prick and poke being placed in the traditional sense; similar to the old-fashioned methods being utilized by the natives hidden away on their islands. The process was painful and long, making it even harder to accomplish and even harder to transition to mainstream popularity.
Everything began to change in 1891, however.
Samuel O’Reilly, born in Connecticut to Irish immigrants, crafted the first major step in the path to modern tattoo acceptance by creating the first tattoo machine. Little is known of O’Reilly’s history, as the practice of tattooing was still mostly underground at this point, but it is known that O’Reilly had moved to New York in 1875. It is believed that he became involved with the secret society of tattoo artists in the area long before filing his patent for what was soon to become a game changer for the tattoo industry. O’Reilly’s design was based heavily on Thomas Edison’s electric pen concept, placing the credit for the invention, technically, on both men.
Shortly after filing his design with the patent office, and being granted said patent, O’Reilly became bogged with circus and sideshow participants longing to test out his new creation. The machine quickly spread through word of mouth, as it produced finer work – cleaner lines, faster application. He opened what he called a ‘tattoo parlor,’ operating his growing business in New York City in a shop off Broadway. His parlor, the very first official tattoo parlor in the United States, would pave the way out of obscurity and many shops began to spring to life across the country.
O’Reilly couldn’t have known at the time, but his ingenious thinking and adaptation of Edison’s design would lead a revolution in the ancient art of body tattooing. As the process became less painful and the time it would take to create such art was cut in half, the process became more and more popular. As the first and second World Wars raged tore across society, military personnel turned to tattoos parlors as a way to show their permanent pride and devotion to their country, their loved ones, and their fallen brothers. As the practice spread through the ranks like wildfire, it suddenly became commonplace to see men sporting tattoos, especially as the wars ceased and the men returned to the workplace.
Today, tattooing has carved a niche in both history and everyday life. Tattooing is now a full-blown profession, recognized by society and accepted as a mainstream industry. An industry that is booming with its own magazines, websites, merchandise, supplies, and parlors popping up across our day to day lives with a ferocity not seen before in the industry. What once was underground, hard to locate, is now face to face with us; displaying its pride in art on almost every corner, in just about every town.