In our Tattoo Culture Abroad Series, we've toured Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Canada as we've explored the progression of tattoo art around the globe through time. Today we're adding another stamp to our virtual passports as we focus the spotlight on the U.S. tattoo culture.
Although the United States is a relatively young country, tattoos are nothing new to this corner of the world. Hawaiians, Native Americans and Eskimos were practicing the art form here long before the United States ever existed. In this post, we'll take a look at the rich history of tattooing in the U.S., how tattoo art has rapidly evolved over the past century, who's who among U.S. tattoo artists today, and what you need to know before getting a tattoo in the U.S.
Early U.S. Tattoos
The art of tattooing first spread to the U.S. 1,500 to 2,000 years ago–well before the United States of America ever existed. The Eskimos, Native Americans and Hawaiians were the first groups to adopt the art form here. The latter two groups embraced the tradition around the same time that tattooing became popular in Polynesia, but the Eskimos likely started tattooing themselves much earlier.
The Aleuts were warriors whose ancestors settled in Alaska long before European settlers ever set foot there. Their heritage can be traced back some 4,000 years, but their interest in tattoos wasn't documented until the 10th century, when Russians began exploring the area in search of fur. They found that the Aleut Eskimos had intricate tattoos on their cheeks, beneath their noses and down to their chins. The Aleuts believed their body art pleased the animal spirits and kept evil at bay. Since they thought that evil spirits called "Khoughkh" could enter the body through their orifices, it was common for the Aleuts to have piercings and tattoos around their noses, mouths and ears for protection.
Body art served other purposes in Eskimo culture, too. Tattoos and piercings could illustrate life accomplishments, enhance one's appearance, and show both social status and spiritual authority. It was especially common for women to have tattoos, because the Eskimos believed it increased feminine beauty. Tattoos were also a sign that a woman was ready to marry and bear children. According to Cardinal Guzman's The History of Tattoo – Part 3: The Indians, "[t]he markings were made with needle and thread that was covered with soot and then dragged under the skin following a specific pattern…The tattooist was an older woman, usually a relative, and according to belief only the souls of brave warriors and women with big, beautiful tattoos were granted access to the afterlife. The men often tattooed short lines in the face, and in the Western Arctic regions, the whale hunting men kept records of their success as hunters with the help of these lines."
Traditional Hawaiian tattoo art, known as "kakau", was imported to the Hawaiian islands as it was throughout Polynesia. The art form has been practiced in that part of the U.S. for more than 1,200 years, but it was not observed and documented by outsiders until Captain Cook visited in 1778–a decade after he first documented Polynesian "tatau" and coined the term "tattoo" during his travels to New Zealand.
The Hawaiians used tattoos to decorate their bodies, as a form of distinction, and to protect both their physical and spiritual well-beings. Men often had their faces, arms, torsos, and legs decorated with intricate natural patterns, such as woven reeds, whereas women were more likely to have their hands, wrists, and sometimes their tongues tattooed with natural symbols. Those members of Hawaiian society with the highest social ranking would have crescent fans called "Peahi niu" incorporated into their tattoo designs. Lizards, which the Hawaiians both respected and feared, were also popular subject matter for early Hawaiian tattoos. It was also common for Hawaiian people's tattoos to memorialize deceased family members, fallen chiefs, and other leaders. The designs varied greatly from person to person, but they were always applied by tattoo "Kahunas", or experts, who used bone needles and mallets to drive pigments into the skin. According to PBS's Skin Stories: The Art & Culture of Polynesian Tattoo, "The process was guarded with great secrecy and all implements were destroyed after use, according to the dictates of kapu."
Tattooing remained a strong tradition in Hawaiian culture until Christian missionaries entered the picture in 1817. They setup schools to educate the tribal children of Hawaii, Samoa, New Zealand, and other parts of the South Pacific, and they initially forbade tattooed children from participating in their programs. The younger generations who wanted an education gave up many of their tribal traditions, including getting tattooed, so they wouldn't be excluded. There wasn't a resurgence in tribal tattoos among Hawaiians until years later, when the missionaries relaxed their rules so that more children could get an education without swearing off their cultural heritage.
The art of tattooing among Native Americans is believed to be a nearly 2,000-year-old practice, but the earliest records of tattooed Native Americans come from documents written by 15th-century European explorers. You can read one such excerpt written in 1615 by Gabriel Sagard-Theodat in our Tattoo Culture in Canada blog post. He described the process as requiring great courage and patience, because it meant spending long periods of time quietly being subjected to prolonged pain.
Native Americans used sharpened natural elements like bone and rock to carve tattoo designs into the skin before filling the wounds with soot and other natural pigments–a process that closely mirrored the carving process the Maori of New Zealand used to create their "moko" facial tattoos. All tattoos held spiritual significance for the Native Americans, who believe in living in harmony with the universe. They ascribed deep meaning to each symbol that far surpassed the literal translation of a design. One article on Native American Symbols illustrates this by saying that, "…an animal not only represents that animal, but its role in the universe, its environment, its unique language and its message to all other living things. Native American symbols are a testament that the larger essence of life imbues all things."
Native American men often used tattoo art to commemorate their victories in wars; the fearsome scenes of battle both recorded their successes and served to intimidate their enemies during future encounters. Men and women alike also chose tattoo designs specific to their regions and tribes, so that others would know where they were from simply by looking at their tattoos. Animals were another popular subject for Native American tattoos, because they wanted to emulate the strengths associated with powerful animals. Many believed that their tattoos could provide them with the supernatural powers and strengths they associated with each animal and other symbol that adorned them.
The Birth of the Rotary Tattoo Machine
Tattooing before 1851 was typically a lengthy, painful process performed with crude tools, like the soot-covered strings the Eskimos used to tattoo themselves and the sharpened bones and rocks used by the Native Americans. Things changed in 1851 thanks to an American named Sam O'Reilly, who invented the first rotary tattoo machine by pairing an ink tube and needle system with Thomas Edison's electric pen. Suddenly, tattoos were more accessible to the masses than ever before, but it was still a costly process. That may explain why, outside of sailors and other military men willing to endure cruder tattooing processes, the art of tattooing first became popular among the American upper class. In the late 1800s, a passion for Japanese tattoos spread like wildfire among them. Tattooed "freaks" also became popular carnival sideshow attractions around the same time.
High society's interest in tattoos began to wane by the early 1940s, and the practice fell out of mainstream favor until decades later. In the years in between, Americans had a mostly negative perception of tattoos, associating them with sailors, soldiers, bikers, rockers, and freaks. Tattoos have steadily been regaining popularity over the past 30 years or so, though. Technological advancements have helped refine the process and elevate tattooing to a recognized and much sought-after art form. Today, tattoos are a common sight throughout the U.S., spanning and uniting people of both sexes, all races and varying socioeconomic statuses in an unprecedented way.
Top U.S. Tattoo Artists Today
Some of the most historically famous tattoo artists in the world have come out of the U.S.–artists like August “Cap” Coleman, Franklin Paul Rogers, and more recently, Ed Hardy and Sailor Jerry. Today, there are almost too many talented American tattoo artists to count. Some of the hottest ones are actually part of the Painful Pleasures family of sponsored tattoo artists. You can learn a little bit about them below.
Dan Henk – This ink master isn't just a tattoo artist; he's also an author, an illustrator and a survivor with an amazing story. For all of his accomplishments, Dan has been most successful at mastering the medium of skin and ensuring that his tattoos stand the test of time. His tattoos, which meld sci fi and realism, are "dark, gritty, touching on realism, but a bit more illustrated" (his words). Check out Dan Henk's Painful Pleasures tattoo portfolio and learn more about him.
Bili Vegas – Bili Vegas has been passionate about art since he was a tot barely able to hold a crayon. He grew up in the art capital of New York and developed an interest in tattoo art at an early age. This INKMASTER veteran specializes in hyper-realism, portraiture, bio-mechnical tattoos, and anatomic tattoos. Skulls are by far his favorite subject matter, as you'll see if you check out Bili's Painful Pleasures tattoo portfolio.
Carl Grace – This big, burly tattoo artist may seem intimidating at first glance, but he's really a teddy bear, and an amazingly-talented one at that. Carl Grace is known for being a master of black and gray tattoos, but he can do some equally amazing things with color. He's on the road constantly and may very well be visiting a tattoo convention near you soon. If you're interested in getting a custom tattoo you'll treasure for life, Carl Grace is the tattoo artist for you. Check out Carl's tattoo portfolio here.
Paul Acker – If you want to work with an award-winning tattoo artist, you'll find very few who can hold a candle to Paul Acker. He's been tattooing since 2001 and has won more than 50 awards just since 2006. Paul's obsessed with 70's and 80's style horror tattoos, and he's exceptional at portrait work–particularly if you're in the market for a tattoo of a famous character. You may be able to track down this quiet tattooist at his studio, Deep Six in Philadelphia, but you're more likely to find him at a convention or doing a guest appearance at another studio. Take a look at Paul Acker's Painful Pleasures portfolio to get a taste of his insane talent.
Josh Hagan – Josh Hagan isn't shy about his past. Although he grew up in an artistic household, he didn't get serious about his own art until he went to prison at a young age. He honed his drawing skills there, and by the time he got out, he knew he wanted to be a tattoo artist. He apprenticed under Larry Mental and Johnny Jinx at Sacred Art Tattoo in Tucson, AZ, and Josh now tattoos out of Seven Tattoo Studio in Las Vegas. He's an exceptional self-taught tattoo artist who works primarily in color and enjoys tattooing dark imagery. You'll find some of his visually-stunning tattoo art in his Painful Pleasures tattoo portfolio.
Ron Russo – Although Ron Russo has been tattooing since 2000, he's a relatively new addition to the top American tattoo artists list. Ron has won trophies for his dark realism tattoos at nearly every tattoo convention he's attended in the past two years. He gravitates towards horror, but he excels at a variety of different styles of tattoo art. Ron is the proud owner of 570 Tattooing Co. in Wilkes-Barre, PA, but he's constantly on the road, traveling the tattoo convention circuit and doing guest appearances at high-end shops like The Studio at Painful Pleasures. Check out Ron's tattoo portfolio to see his dark, twisted and utterly gripping tattoo art and learn more about him.
This is just a small taste of the top American tattoo artists you'll find at Painful Pleasures and throughout the U.S. Check out all of our sponsored artists' portfolios on The Studio at Painful Pleasures website, or read Complex.com's 50 Tattoo Artists You Need to Know for more info about the top tattoo artists in the U.S. and beyond.
Getting a Tattoo in the U.S.
Getting a tattoo in the U.S. today is a pretty safe endeavor as long as you choose a reputable tattoo shop. Check out our Choosing the Most Sanitary Tattoo & Piercing Shop article to learn everything you need to know to ensure that you get your next tattoo in a clean, safe environment. At a minimum, there are three things you need to watch out for when considering a shop:
- Do they use an autoclave or another thorough sterilization method to clean their reusable tattoo tools?
- Do the artists wear gloves and cover any equipment that can't be autoclaved with protective gear, like tattoo machine bags?
- Do the tattooists pull all tattoo needles and other disposables out of sterile packaging in front of their clients?
As for the tattoo design you choose, it should be meaningful to you–something you'll treasure for a lifetime rather than flash art off the wall that strikes your fancy at the moment. If you've chosen a tattoo artist carefully, you should be able to rely on your artist to turn your tattoo idea into a stunning tattoo you'll adore for many years to come.
History of Tattoos Article on PainfulPleasures.com
Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo on PBS.org
The History of Tattoo – Part 3: The Indians Article by Cardinal Guzman
Native American Symbols & Signs on Whats-Your-Sign.com