Many sailors returned to port with tattoos that they received during voyages. They had a basic or primitive style to them - minimal detail with a two-dimensional or “flat” appearance that made them look cartoon like. Typical designs were flowers, hearts, mermaids, ships, anchors, snakes, birds, names and script. The tattoos were inspired by sailors’ voyages, marking specific places visited or victories. Sailors were often superstitious since their work was dependent on the unpredictability of the sea, so some tattoos also acted as good luck “talismans”. Some common sailor tattoos included:
Sparrow - Represents that the given sailor has travelled 5000 nautical miles.
Anchor - Would represent the sailor having crossed the Atlantic ocean. Anchors also hold the ship in place, and symbolize stability.
Dragon - Typically meant the sailor had been to China, or had served at a station in China.
Hold Fast - Meant as a reminder to hold the lines fast when the ship is on the water in poor weather.
Rooster and Pig - Represent the sailor’s survival of a shipwreck; 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 were likely to wash to the shore.
Swallow - Symbolize the notion of always being able to make it to shore and eventually home to loved ones, as swallows are migratory birds always able to find their way home. They are also known to carry the the souls of the deceased to heaven.
Nautical Star - Represents the North Star utilized by sailors for navigating waters, meant to guide the sailor back home.
The circus scene brought much popularity to tattoos in late 19th and early 20th century. For nearly a century, circuses employed men and women that were completely covered in tattoos. They were often considered sideshow acts, but many performed in traditional circus acts such as juggling and sword-swallowing. Circus companies would compete for the services of elaborately tattooed performers by offering them handsome salaries. Tattoo artists at the time profited most by travelling with circuses in the warmer seasons, and working out of permanent shops in the colder seasons. Tattoo artists were also able to use circuses as an exhibit to advertise their work to the circuses’ paying public.
Tattooing and circuses first connected in 1804 when Jean Baptiste Cabri, who was tattooed during his time in the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific, 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, who was said to have been 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 travelling Caravan of Wonders where he showed off his tattoos, and spoke of his adventures.
Phineas T. Barnum was one of the first to establish exhibitions showcasing “unique” individuals. In 1842, the Barnum’s American Museum showcased James F. O’Connell as the first ever tattooed man exhibit. O’Connell told tales of his adventures with indigenous peoples on Ponape in the Caroline Islands, where he was captured and forced to submit to being tattooed by a series of voluptuous virgins, eventually marry the last virgin to tattoo him. This exhibit attracted many viewers, most of whom had never seen tattooing before.
With the growth of the railway connecting the east and the west of the United States, circuses thrived by entertaining travellers along the way. Many were attracted to the idea of getting tattooed and making an easy living in the circus, especially once electric tattoo machines had developed, making tattoos more easily obtainable. The first completely tattooed woman ever showcased in a circus was La Belle Irene, who was first exhibited in London 1890. She was adorned in tattoos of flowers, birds, hearts, cupids, scrolls, and sentimental inscriptions from the ornamental commercial art of the time. Patrons at her exhibit were told that she received her tattoos as protection against the unwelcome advances of the natives in Texas. Circuses became more elaborate and more competitive nearing the end of the 1800’s. Tattooed people were in high demand from circuses and their exhibits became more elaborate containing skilled acts such as sword swallowing, fire eating, mind readers, strong men, knife throwers, and even circus animals.
By the 1920’s it is estimated that over 300 tattooed people were working in circuses and sideshows, and earning up to $200 per week. During this time period one of the most famous tattooed people was Horace Ridler. London’s leading tattoo artist, George Burchette, tattooed Ridler in 1927 - Ridler asked to be tattooed on his entire body, face included, in zebra stripes. Ridler also had his nose pierced with an ivory tusk, as well as pierced and stretched ear lobes. He entitled himself the “Great Omi” and is now considered one of the most successful freaks in circus history. After WWI tattoos became less of a novelty; more and more people were tattooed, from sailors, to those who had been away for war. Freak show popularity dwindled as “tattooed people” became less and less unique. After WWII freak shows came under attack, and very few circuses continued to include them.
The Arab writer Ibn Fadlan encountered Vikings in the year 1100, and described the group as rude, dirty and covered with pictures, thus it is believed that Vikings were tattooed. Fadlan was sent on a diplomatic mission by Caliph of Baghdad to the Bulgars in the middle Volga area of Russia. Fadlan met people called the Rus, who were Swedish Viking traders and traded slaves at markets. Fadlan describes the people he witnessed as being tattooed from the neck down - with dark green symbols and figures such as trees. It is now believed that the figures may have actually been traditional Viking art such as gripping beast or other knotwork patterns. As well it is thought the tattoos were instead dark blue, which occurs when wood ash is used to dye the skin.
This however is not definitive proof that Vikings were in fact tattooed - as the Arabic word used in the original text for “tattoo” was commonly used to refer to mosque decorations, not body art. As well, there’s no obvious mention of tattoos within Viking sagas or poetry despite many literally sources from this group of people at this time period which descriptively archive details of other physical characteristics. Since human skin does not remain intact centuries after being buried, further evidence is difficult. The remains of a Scythian chieftain was found in Siberia, frozen from being buried beneath permafrost possibly predating 500 B.C.E. The chieftain’s remains were completely frozen which allowed for his skin along with its tattoos to be perfectly preserved. Although this time period predates the existence of Vikings in Russia by over a thousand years, the two groups are still likely to have crossed paths and as a result passed along the practice of tattooing to the Viking people who may have adopted it with their own artistic designs.
Today it is a popular trend for tattoo artists to adopt Viking designs. A typical tattoo is the Vegvisir, which is a traditional compass design. This symbol is not actually from the same time period of Vikings, however, it dates to an Icelandic book on magic from the 17th century. Another tattoo representing Viking art is the Helm of Awe, or Aegishjalmur. This symbol is meant to give the wearer magical powers to strike their enemies with fear and confusion.
Up until the past few decades, tattoos were often deemed only meant for cultural outcasts, the marginalized, and criminals. Prison tattoos were typically performed using homemade or improvised tools and materials, and were meant to convey the identity and affiliation of inmates. Many gangs are known for having tattoos to symbolize the dedication of its members, as receiving permanent markings on the body represents one’s absolute loyalty. Gang tattoos are meant to portray what gang they are in, what their ideology or beliefs are, what they have done, where they have been incarcerated or lived, as well as how many people they are said to have killed. Some well known gang tattoos are tear drops under the eye and spider webs on the elbows - both are meant to represent that the individual has murdered.
In Japan, Yakuza members and other criminals were often seen with extensive body tattoos or bodysuits. These traditional criminal tattoos are known as “irezumi” in Japanese. The characteristics of each tattoo, such as size and detail, demonstrates the wearers’ affiliation as well as their strength and ability to endure pain. From 300-600 (the Kofun period), tattoos began gain a negative association. At this point tattoos were placed on criminals as a punishment. During the Meiji period from 1868-1912 the government of Japan wanted to establish a clean image with the western world, and decided to criminalize tattoos. As a result irezumi became synonymous with outlaw activity. 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 - many businesses in Japan (such as public baths, fitness centers and hot springs) still ban customers with tattoos.
In the United Kingdom, ACAB is an acronym used when referring to some prison tattoos - the letters stand for All Cops Are Bastards, or less commonly Always Carry A Bible. ACAB is typically done with one letter between the knuckle and first joint of each finger, sometimes as symbolic small dots with or without the accompanying letters. Russian criminal tattoos are known for having a complex system of symbols meant to describe the wearer. These symbols all have distinct meanings and their definition can change depending on their location on the body. A typical gang initiation tattoo in Russia is a tattoo on the chest incorporating a rose, most significantly known for its use within the Russian Mafia. Prison tattoos within Russia are known for having a distinct blueish colour and typically appear blurred due to inadequate tools.
Tattoos based on flash are 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. This has become a more traditional way of tattooing, as much of today’s tattooing is defined by a client commissioning a piece from a tattoo artist, in order to create a unique and custom piece specifically for the client. These custom pieces are made to be one of a kind, and the artist will not tattoo the same exact piece again. According to Albert Parry’s book Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art (1933), tattooists of the time were so inundated with requests that it was difficult for them to keep up with the demand for new designs. In the late 19th and early 20th century exchanging flash between artists became common practice, and the mailing of catalogs and supplies and flashbooks allowed artists more freedom to keep pace with the expanding market for tattoos. Flash style tattoos that were established in the 1800’s were characterized by their bold, black outlines, and basic colour palettes. These tattoo pieces would be composed of simple designs such as pin-ups, american flags, and eagles. The simple illustrations allowed for tattoo artists to quickly and easily apply tattoos. One tattooer known for helping to popularize flash sheets is the New York artist Lew “the Jew” Alberts.