Explore Rare Early American Tattoo History through these Fascinating Images

Samuel O’Reilly Americana tattoo designs
SAMUEL O’REILLY, “EAGLE AND SHIELD,” CA. 1875–1905, WATERCOLOR, INK, AND PENCIL ON PAPER

While getting a tattoo can be a painful experience, did you know that tattoos were originally used to alleviate pain? In the mid-18th century, Native American women used tattoos to relieve toothaches and arthritis, similar to acupuncture.

Photo of tattooer Charlie Wagner
Charlie Wagner, 1875-1953d prolific tattooer, inventor, and student of Samuel O’Reilly.

New York City is often regarded as the birthplace of modern tattoos. It’s where the first professional tattoo artist, Martin Hildebrandt, established his shop in the mid-19th century to tattoo Civil War soldiers for identification. It’s also the birthplace of the first electric rotary tattoo machine, invented in 1891, inspired by Thomas Edison’s electric pen. Currently, the city hosts two separate exhibitions on the history of tattoos: “Tattooed New York” at the New-York Historical Society, documenting 300 years of tattooing, and “The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo” at the South Street Seaport Museum, focusing on the sailor and sideshow star Gus Wagner, one of America’s most tattooed men.

Famous Gus Wagner, tattooer
Gus Wagner, American seaman, circus performer and tattoo artist. Photo 1904 (Not related to Charlie Wagner)

Interestingly, the word “tattoo” in English has its origins in the late 16th century, but its history among indigenous peoples in the United States predates that. Indigenous people often adorned themselves with tattoos representing battle victories or protective spirits, such as birds symbolizing freedom.

New Zealand Maori Warrior - copper plate etching
New Zealand Maori Warrior – drawn by Sydney Parkinson during Captain Cooks 1st Voyage of Discovery in 1769

The tattoo concept in America took a significant turn during voyages to the South Pacific, where Western sailors learned about traditional Polynesian pictographic tattoos. Sailors began getting inked with ship names, birthdates, and symbols like anchors to signify stability and protection from drowning.

Tattooing initially spread among sailors and eventually to landlubbers. In the Victorian 19th century, tattoos became a fashion statement for socialites, inspired by British royalty who also had tattoos.

Women played a significant role in the history of tattoos. In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, women with colorful body art could make a living in circuses and sideshows. While some initially claimed their tattoos were forced upon them, these stories transformed into narratives of personal liberation and freedom.

Tattooing continued to evolve over time, even facing setbacks like a hepatitis outbreak in the 1960s that led to a ban in New York City. However, the ban was eventually lifted in 1997, and tattoos have since become even more common.

The history of tattoos is a fascinating journey, with images and stories that shed light on their cultural significance and evolution in America.

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