Sailors often returned to port with tattoos they received during their voyage. These usually consisted of a extremely basic or primitive styles that used minimum amounts of detail thus making the tattoos look 2 dimensional or ‘flat’. These flat tattoos, today known as ‘flash tattoos’ often give a cartoon feel. The typical motifs would consist of flowers, hearts, mermaids, ships, anchors, snakes, birds, and names or script.


A huge part of these tattoos were actually in memory to commemorate a stage in the sailor’s life like voyages, love of country, or to mark some visits to specific places or their victories. Many of those tattoos, however, were considered good luck talismans by the sailors to keep off bad influences. Folks who are part of the sea are known to be superstitious which is natural given to their line of work which involves the humongous and unpredictable sea. Their need to keep good omens about their person was not totally uncalled for


A sparrow tattoo is something that shows the traveling of a 5000 nautical miles. The anchor tattoo – A sailor would get the anchor tattooed once he had crossed the Atlantic ocean. What is more than the anchor since it is what keeps the ship attached to the bottom of the sea, and so they were considered a symbol of faith that is stable and unwavering. Sometimes adding the word “Dad” or “Mom” along with this makes it more significant. A dragon tattoo – was used to simply denote that the sailor in question had been to China or had served in a China station. A golden dragon – this denoted the crossing of the International date line which is an imaginary line along the surface of the earth. The fully rigged ship is supposed to denote that the sailor has sailed around the Cape Horn. Hold fast tattoos would be a reminder to the lines fast when the ship is on the water in poor weather. Rooster and pig tattoo are supposed to denote the surviving of a sailor from a shipwreck. Both these animals are often put in wooden crate on board the ship, and when the ship capsizes the crates would float along the current and was likely to wash to the shore


A swallow tattoo – these are migratory birds who can always find the way home. Sailors like the symbolism of being always being able to make it to the shore and thereby to home and back to the company of the loved ones. On the other hand, swallows are known to carry the souls of dead people off to heaven. The nautical star tattoo – this is representative of the North Star which is used for navigation on water. It is meant to guide you back to safety.



The prevalence of tattooing during the late 19’th and early 20’th century owed much to the once popular circus. When these traveling carnivals were prevalent tattooing, in turn, prospered. For nearly 100 years all major circus acts hired numerous individuals who were completely covered in tattoos. Some of these tattooed men and women were exhibited in ‘sideshows’ whilst others performed in traditional circus acts like juggling and sword-swallowing. Rival circuses competed with each other for the services of the most elaborately tattooed show people and paid them handsome salaries. Many of the old-time tattoo artists made most of their money while traveling with circuses during the spring and summer, returning to their shops and homes in the winter. The circus served as a showcase where tattoo artists could attract customers by exhibiting their work to a paying public, and in many cases the only surviving records are in the form of photos and posters which were used for circus publicity. The connection between tattooing and the circus began in 1804 when Jean Baptiste Cabri who had been tattooed by the Marquesas became a carnival performer. In the last years of his life he was forced to compete with trained dogs and other popular amusements in country fairs. By 1822 he died, poor and forgotten. The first tattooed English showman was John Rutherford. It was said that he was captured and held prisoners by the Maoris. During his years with the Maoris he participated in warfare, headhunting, and other tribal activities. When he returned he accompanied a traveling caravan of wonders where he showed his tattooing, and told of his adventures


The great 19th century showman, Phineas T. Barnum, is credited with organizing the first group exhibitions of unique individuals. One of the principal attractions at Barnum’s American Museum in 1842 was James F. O’Connell who had the honor of being the first tattooed man ever exhibited in the United States. He entertained his audiences wih tales of exotic adventures and according to O’Connell, savages on Ponape, in the Caroline Islands captured him and forced him to submit to tattooing at the hands of a series of voluptuous virgins. He was forced to marry the last one who tattooed him. Museum patrons, most of whom had never seen tattooing before, were impressed. The railway in 1869, connected the east and west coasts of the United Sates. The circus entered a period of growth and prosperity that resulted in employment opportunities for many tattooed people and tattoo artists


Constantine, a Greek who had spent many years in Burma, had himself tattooed with the intention of going into show business. He was the most elaborately and artistically tattooed performer of his time. He said that four strong men had to hold him down while he was tattooed every morning for three hours. It took three months for the work to be completed. With the invention of the electric tattooing machine, many individuals were attracted to the opportunity of making an easy living in the circus. “La Belle Irene” made her London debut in 1890, claiming to be the first completely tattooed woman ever exhibited in a circus. Her decorations included an assortment of flowers, birds, hearts, cupids, scrolls and sentimental inscriptions borrowed from the ornamental commercial art of the day. Londoners were told that she received her tattoos as protection in a savage land (Texas) as a protection against the unwelcome advances of the natives. During the last decade of the 19th century, the circus enjoyed an unprecedented period of growth and prosperity. As circuses prospered, the demand for tattooed people increased and the competition became intense as circus owners competed to come up with more extravagant tattooed shows. There were tattooed sword swallowers, fire eaters, dwarves, jugglers, mind readers, strong men, fat ladies, wrestlers, knife throwers and even circus animals. It has been estimated that by 1920, over 300 completely tattooed people wee employed in circuses and sideshows. Some earned as much as $200 a week


The most famous tattooed man of this period was Horace Ridler. In 1927, he asked London’s leading tattoo artist, George Burchett, to tattoo him all over, including his face with inch-wide zebra stripes. To become a freak in order to earn a livelihood was a gamble which might not have come off. Ridler also had his teeth filed down to sharp points. He had his nose pierced so he could insert an ivory tusk and his ear lobes were pierced and stretched. He called himself the Great Omi and was one of the most successful freaks in the history of the circus. He succeeded because he was unique but during the latter part of his career there were fewer and fewer tattooed people seen in circuses. The popularity of the freak show was waning and tattooed people were no longer novelties. After WWII, freak shows came under attack and only a few of the larger circuses still included them.


It is very likely that the Vikings were tattooed. At around year 1100 the Arab Ibn Fadlan described a meeting with some vikings. He thought them very rude, dirty – and covered with pictures. An Arab writer, Ibn Fadlan, was sent by the Caliph of Baghdad on a diplomatic mission to the Bulgars in the Middle Volga area of Russia. While there in A.D. 921, Ibn Fadlan met a people called the Rus, Swedish Viking traders, who had brought slaves to sell at the markets. Ibn Fadlan describes the Rus and at one point he mentioned that all the men were tattooed from the tips of their fingers to their necks. The tattoos were dark green figures of trees and symbols. It is likely, however, that the tattoos were probably dark blue, a color that comes from using wood ash to dye the skin. While Ibn Fadlan describes the tattoos as trees, he could have seen the Vikings trademark gripping beast or other knotwork patterns of which the Vikings were fond. This is rather slight evidence on which to state categorically that Vikings tattooed themselves. The Arabic word used in the original text for “tattoo” was more commonly used to describe mosque decorations rather than actual tattoos. Also, tattoos are not mentioned in any of the sagas or poetry, although these literary works describe many other physical characteristics such as scars or hair color


Unfortunately, human skin does not survive centuries of burial. However, a Scythian chieftain was found in Siberia who had been buried circa 500 B.C. He had been buried beneath the permafrost, so his skin and tattoos survived. While this find predates Viking traders in Russia by 1300 years, it is possible that Vikings could have met the descendants of the Scythians while on trading missions in Russia and learned the tattooing art from them. The Scythian warrior’s tattoos had Scythian art styles, of course. If Vikings did have tattoos, it is likely they would have used Norse designs and symbols found in their other artwork on bone carvings or jewelry


Many tattoo artists have designed Viking tattoos, which can be easily found in many places online. Popular Viking tattoos include the compass tattoo, called the Vegvisir. This symbol is not from the Viking Age, however; it dates to the 17th century, from an Icelandic book on magic. Another popular Viking design for a tattoo is the Helm of Awe or Aegishjalmur. This symbol allows the wearer to strike his enemies with fear and confusion. It is also thought to grant magical powers to its wearer.


For hundreds of years the practice of tattooing was believed to be reserved for sailors, cultural outcasts, the marginalized and criminals. Prison tattoos can be quite professionally done with homemade or improvised materials. These convey an inmates autonomy and, in many cases, identity. A commonly known symbol for gang members are their tattoos. Receiving permanent markings on the body is a sign of absolute loyalty. These gang tattoos often speak volumes about the wearer, what gang they are in, what their ideologies or beliefs might be, what they have done, where they have been incarcerated or lived as well as details up to and including how many individuals the member is said to have killed. Known Western gang tattoo symbols include teardrops under the eye as well as spider webs on the elbows – these are said to symbolize that the wearer has killed. Japanese Yakuza tattoos often have a body suit with varied iconography being used. Whereas the Chinese triads use a specific set of archetypal images in varying arrangements

Going back throughout modern history, Tattoos have long been associated with Criminality. Whilst it is true that there are links to certain Tattoos, gangs criminal tattoo rituals and similar, it has to be said that in my opinion, most of this line of thinking is mere stereotyping of tattooed people. Going further back in English history, tattooing was originally synonymous with the higher classes of society. Over the centuries tattoos have been the indelible marks of royalty, of loyalty to a gang, of religious devotion and pledges of love. Among criminals, Tattoos can be used to show membership of gangs and record the wearer’s personal history – such as his or her skills, specialties, accomplishments and convictions. They are also used as a means of personal expression. Certain designs have developed recognized coded meanings. The code systems can be quite complex and, because of the nature of what they encode, they are often not widely recognized


British Criminal Tattoos | ACAB is an acronym often integrated into prison tattoos in the United Kingdom. It is most commonly rendered with one letter between the knuckle and first joint of each finger, sometimes as symbolic small dots with or without the accompanying letters. Also commonly presumed to be associated with the UK prison system (often incorrectly) are words on the knuckles, homemade tattoos (cotton, needle and Indian ink) and similar. Many prison / jail related tattoo designs are now adopted by the youth culture as a means of identifying themselves as tough, mean, or to imply their willingness to go to jail for their crew or gang. ACAB can stand for All Coppers Are Bastards, or Always Carry A Bible, but most likely All Coppers Are Bastards depending on who is asking and whether the bearer is trying to make a good impression


Japan Criminal History | Extensive body tattoos (‘body suits’) are commonly worn by Yakuza members. These traditional tattoos are known as irezumi in Japanese. Their size and elaborate nature show not only the wearers’ affiliation, but also his ability to endure pain. Starting in the Kofun period (300-600 A.D.), tattoos began to assume negative connotations. Instead of being used for ritual or status purposes, tattooed marks began to be placed on criminals as a punishment (this was mirrored in ancient Rome, where slaves were known to have been tattooed with mottos such as “I am a slave who has run away from his master”). At the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912 A.D.) the Japanese government, wanting to protect its image and make a good impression on the west, outlawed tattoos, and irezumi took on connotations of criminality. Nevertheless, fascinated foreigners went to Japan seeking the skills of tattoo artists, and traditional tattooing continued underground. Tattooing was legalized by the occupation forces in 1945, but has retained its image of criminality. For many years, traditional Japanese tattoos were associated with the Yakuza and many businesses in Japan (such as public baths, fitness centers and hot springs) still ban customers with tattoos


North American | A tattoo of three dots in a triangle, usually found on the skin between the thumb and forefinger, stands for “mi vida loca” (“my crazy life”). Along with the pachuco cross, it is a popular “generic” tattoo among Hispanic teenagers, and has no direct connection to gangs. The tattoo has also been adopted by Vietnamese teenagers, along with the similar interpretation of “toi khong can gi ca” (“I need nothing”). A teardrop tattoo is said to indicate that the wearer has killed or a friend of his was killed in prison. It is worn by the eye.A tattoo of a shamrock is associated with the white supremacist prison gang founded in California known as the Aryan Brotherhood. The Aryan Brotherhood is also known to use 12 as an identifier, with the 1 symbolizing the letter A, and the 2 symbolizing the letter B. Another white supremacy gang, the Aryan Circle, uses 13 as their symbol, with the same meaning. A tattoo of an Ace of Spades was mainly adopted by the Aco Town and Asian Boyz gang, but have been widely used by Asian youths in California. Often, an “A” is placed in the middle of the spade: the “A” symbolizing Asian and the spade symbolizing thievery. A tattoo of the number “13” indicates membership in the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) gang. The Mexican Mafia uses MM or a Hand normaly a black hand, and are sometimes affiliated with California-based street gangs known as the Surenos. A tattoo of the number “14” is associated with the prison gang, Nuestra Familia and associated California-based street gangs known as Nortenos. A tattoo of “13 1/2” means 12 jurors plus 1 judge plus 1/2 a chance. It is a common practice for California street gangs of all races and ethnic backgrounds to have the telephone area code in their neighborhood tattooed, e.g. 213, 818, 310, 714, 415, 619; with the frequent changes in California area codes, this can quickly become outdated


Russian | Russian criminal tattoos have a complex system of symbols which can ‘read’ to give quite detailed information about the wearer. Not only do the symbols carry meaning but the area of the body on which they are placed may be meaningful too. The initiation tattoo of a new gang member is usually placed on the chest and may incorporate a rose. A rose on the chest is also used within the Russian Mafia. Tattoos done in a Russian prison have a distinct blueish color and usually appear somewhat blurred because of the lack of instruments to draw fine lines. In addition to voluntary tattooing, tattoos are used to stigmatize and punish individuals within the criminal society. ‘Grins’ may be placed on an individual who fails to pay debts in card games and often have very blatant sexual images, embarrassing the wearer. The Four Suits: Spades – the “suit of thieves” (particularly where the symbol appears upside down). Clubs – another “criminal” suit. Diamonds – the “chummy suit” (i.e. stoolpigeons and informers); this suit is usually forcibly applied. Hearts– a sexual symbol; it may mark the wearer out as a “passive homosexual” within the prison. Other Symbols: Cross (A cross worn on the chest signifies a “Prince of Thieves,” the highest possible rank.) Grins (these are humorous tattoos usually incorporating a grinning face and are often accompanied by text). Snakes (snakes have a particular symbolism and are usually worn by high ranking gang members). Tigers(signifies an ‘enforcer’). Cats (the cat is associated with the characteristics needed by a criminal). Skulls(these are usually worn by high ranking gang members). Eyes (these are forcibly placed on lower backside to show that the prisoner is used for sexual gratification). Barbed wire aA barbed wire across ones forehead usually indicates a life-term in prison). Swastika (is forcibly applied to forehead and marks one for death). Stars (stars commonly represent time served. Each point indicates a year served in jail). Churches (like stars, but for Christian prisoners, the number of dome towers indicate the amount of years that the prisoner has been sentenced to)


As with other artistic mediums and cultural developments vocabulary continually evolves. The term ‘tattoo flash’ is commonly used to juxtapose it’s position against tattoo art. This comparison is reflective if the depth and potential of body art as well as the contemporary imagination. In recent years tattooing has emerged to the forefront of popular consciousness. Today tattoo ‘flash’, is a folder of tattoo designs completed by tattoo artists. For those who receive a tattoo based on flash it is much like the selection of a sticker from an album. The individual simply chooses a pre-made design from a book of stencils and has a tattooist trace it onto their body. Tattoo art today is defined as the commissioning of a tattoo artist for the creation of a unique, single use piece. According to Albert Parry’s book Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art, published in 1933 by Simon and Schuster, tattooists of the time were so inundated with requests that it was difficult for them to keep up with the demand for new designs. But the exchange of flash during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which were largely distributed with other supplies through mail order catalogs, helped artists keep up with the growing marketplace


The style that emerged during this turning point can be defined by its use of bold, black outlines and a limited color palette. It’s also defined by specific imagery – patriotic symbols like eagles, the American flag, or male oriented pictures of girl-heads and pin-ups – which can be attributed to the number of sailors who favored this act of body adornment. Designs were intentionally kept simple in an effort to further increase the speed of application and enable an artist to accommodate more clients. Of the many masters who helped fill the market gap, Parry credits New York City tattooer Lew “the Jew” Alberts as an early promoter and peddler of these new sheets of flash. Michigan native Percy Waters had a strong mail order business and was also influential. And according to Parry, he was also well known for his acrimonious criticism of his competitor’s practices and standards


The author quotes from a leaflet Waters mailed that warns of “fly-by-nighters” who prey on inexperienced buyers, plagiarize literature, and sell ill-executed designs, such as the Statue of Liberty raising her left arm, or steamboats with flags that wave north while clouds of smoke float south. Waters concludes frankly with: “Such crap as this could not be classed with tattooing machines and designs made by a skillful mechanic and artist of long reputation”


In some ways, Waters’ sentiment still rings true today – both inside and outside the tattoo industry. And while tattooing has become less of a “strange art” in recent years, the American style has become a time-honored tradition, and is still celebrated and referenced in countless studios across the continent.