The history of tattoos – particularly in a city as creative and cosmopolitan as New York – is as colorful as the epidermal artwork itself. As The New York Times notes, denizens of New York are surrounded by advertising, so how could they resist using their own skin as a form of expression?
But tattoos have been inked for centuries – even millennia – all over the world. There is evidence of Native Americans bearing marks upon their skin: “’Indigenous people of North America pricked or scratched the skin with sharpened bones, branches, or needles, then rubbed soot or crushed minerals into the wound as pigment.’” According to Time, “in the mid-18th century, Native American women tattooed themselves to alleviate toothaches and arthritis, similar to acupuncture.” A set of mezzotint portraits titled “The Four Indian Kings” depicts tattooed Mohawk and Mohican leaders circa 1710.
During that century, the word “tattoo” was derived from Captain James Cook’s voyage in the South Pacific, where he encountered Polynesian tribes bearing marks upon their skin. According to the Village Voice, the famous explorer “first introduced the Tahitian word tautau to England.” Cook’s crew also picked up souvenirs from their travels, which they carried back West.
Sailors began to request tattoos signifying important events, like ship names, birth dates, or milestones, “to mark the first time they crossed the equator or rounded Cape Horn or the Arctic Circle. […]The common anchor tattoo was meant to signify stability and to safeguard them from drowning […].” Apparently, the red star logo of Macy’s department store was inspired by the founder’s tattoo, from his days working on a whaling ship.
Tattoo shops catering to maritimers shared space with barbershops, initially in the Financial District, then in the Bowery. Barbers have a history of practicing surgery as well as cutting hair, hence the traditional striped barber pole. According to Untapped Cities, “these storefront ornaments reflected the common belief that hair cutters were “doctors” of the days (blue – veins, red – blood, white – bandages).”
Sailors are in great part responsible for the spread of tattoos, which eventually attained social cachet. The New York elite inked their skin once the practice was made fashionable by British royalty: “Britain’s Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had gotten body art during an 1862 trip to Jerusalem, while his sons Prince Albert and Prince George (future King George V) got dragons inked in Japan by Hori Chyo, an artist known as ‘the Shakespeare of tattooing.’”
Tattoos were also a practical necessity. During the Civil War, they took the place of dog tags. In the mid-19th century, professional tattoo artist Martin Hildebrandt inscribed thousands of soldiers – both Union and Confederate – with their names, so that if they fell, their bodies could be correctly identified. Hildebrandt made his shop permanent in the Lower East Side, where tattoos continued to be relevant. In New York, “the first electric rotary tattoo machine was invented in 1891, inspired by Thomas Edison’s electric pen,” by Samuel O’Reilly, and was later improved by Charles Wagner. The practicality of tattoos was again demonstrated in the 1930s, when Social Security numbers were first administered, and people needed help retaining their numbers.
One of Martin Hildebrandt’s best clients was a woman: Nora Hildebrandt showed off over 300 tattoos in the Barnum & Bailey Circus during the late 19th century. Other women eventually owned their own tattoo shops. Mildred “Millie” Hull was the first, opening the Tattoo Emporium in the Bowery in the 1930s. Millie started as a burlesque dancer, and made her appearance all the more exotic by acquiring a number of tattoos, earning the nickname the “‘tattooed lady.’”
Betty Broadbent was almost crowned queen of a beauty pageant at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, giving female tattoos a broader platform. While Betty was one of the most photographed tattooed women at the time, she was not nearly in the minority. “The New York World, reports the Historical Society, placed the percentage of fashionable NYC ladies who were inked at the turn of the century around three-quarters.” Tattoo artists made house calls to accommodate the popularity of tattoos among women. Winston Churchill’s mother reportedly had a wrist tattoo, easily concealed by bracelets.
Despite its popularity with both women and men, the tattoo industry suffered a setback when in 1961, the New York City Health Department instituted a ban on the practice. Tattoos were blamed for “an alleged series of blood-borne Hepatitis-B cases linked to Coney Island tattoo parlors in the late 1950s.” However, according to Gothamist, other reasons may have weighed on the decision: “members of the public recall other motivations for the ban, including the mayor’s desire to clean up the city in preparation for the 1964 World’s Fair, a city health inspector’s personal vendetta against one of the Bowery tattooers, and even a scare regarding contaminated shell fish.”
The ban simply drove the tattoo business underground. Artists opened up shop in apartments and arranged signals in case of a raid, as with Prohibition. Tattoo parlors operated illegally in the 70s, like Mike Bakaty’s famous Fineline, considered the oldest tattoo shop in New York. Mayor Giuliani ended the ban in 1997, but tattoos had never really left New York, and the art had only become more international.
To learn more about the history of tattoos and the special role New York played in their popularity, check out the exhibit “Tattooed New York” at the New York Historical Society. Or visit the South Street Seaport Museum to learn about “the most tattooed man in America”: “The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo.”