A Little Bit of HistoryBy Pete On March 16, 2012 Under Posts
How many of us have tattoos and how common are they? According to the Pew Research Center, about one third of Americans between the ages of 18 and 40 have at least one tattoo. The highest rate of ink among the population is found with the 18 – 29 year olds where 38% have at least one tattoo. All in all, Pew’s research indicates 23% of all Americans have tattoos – that is almost one in four people! We can see that tattoos are very popular in the US today but where did the practice begin?
Tattoos have been with us for at least 10,000 years. Some speculate the very first tattoos were actually war wounds from early wooden spears. Ancient peoples used to fire harden their wooden arrows and spears leaving the end of the implement covered in carbon or ash. Getting stuck like a pig with one of these things would not only hurt but if you survived, the wound would most likely show some of that black ash residue which penetrated your skin. Surviving something like that back in the days before antibiotics would demonstrate an almost supernatural healing and survival ability. Plus, showing off scars and such is a pretty cool way to pass time around the campfire and impress the ladies as well. This, I can believe, because in today’s world just getting stabbed accidentally by a pencil will leave a permanent black mark. I have one of those on my hand but it doesn’t impress women that much.
As many people know, the word “tattoo” comes from the Polynesian language of Samoa and was introduced into the English language after Captain Cook’s early voyage there on HMS Endeavor in 1769. Samoan tattoos, called “Pe’a,” are famous and the getting a tattoo isn’t something Samoans do when drunk, or visiting Coney Island. This is a sacred rite filled with many “taboos” (another word we get from that language) and the whole elaborate process takes months.
Other famous tattoo designs from Ploynesia come from New Zealand. The Maori people underwent the tattoo ritual on the face to create the feared “ta moko.”
Early on in American history trappers and adventurers came across the art of tattooing by Native Americans. Indian tribes often practiced tattooing to commemorate battles won. A wandering trapper would find friends amongst Indians of a certain tribe if he too had one of their tattoos. Of course, if he ran into the wrong tribe his future may not be so bright. At the same time American whalers from New England were roaming far and wide into the Pacific and beyond coming into constant contact with tattooed Polynesians and Melanesians. They brought this art form back to the ports up and down the east coast when they returned from their long voyages.
The invention of the electric tattoo machine in 1891 sped up the process of getting a tattoo and an artist could ink many more customers than ever before in a single day. Business for tattoo artists boomed during World War One and it was reported that a good artist could make up to $100 a day, which was a lot of money back in 1918. How much is that? About $1,500 in today’s money!
Tattooing became even more popular in the US during World War Two when soldiers and sailors went on active duty in the Pacific. At that time, tattooing was associated with the military and you could usually find a tattoo artist anywhere there was a military base. After the war and with the beginning of the ultra-conservative 1950s tattooing entered a quiet phase. This changed with women’s liberation in the 1960s which opened up a whole new market to previously a male only activity. Janis Joplin’s famous rose and vine tattoo inked on her wrist by Lyle Tuttle in San Francisco became a potent symbol of that liberation. She followed that up with a few more small tats, including a small heart tattoo on her left breast, or as Janis put it:
“I wanted some decoration. See, the one on my wrist is for everybody; the one on my tit is for me and my friends.”
Tuttle went on to tattoo other celebrities of the time including Peter Fonda and one on Cher’s posterior (since removed).
Image credit: Wikipedia/Rolling Stone Magazine