History of American Tattooing

Tattooing as an art form has been alive and well for centuries in certain parts of the world, but the West was a little slow in adopting skin art in any type of way. It really wasn’t until the late 1800’s that tattoos began to show up in the United States, but even when they did they were often confined to circus freak acts, such was the belief that tattooing was something saved solely for prisoners and other members of the lower classes. It wasn’t until 1870 that the first tattoo shop opened on this side of the pond, with German-born Martin Hildebrandt being the one who paved the way.
Prior to the opening of the ship, it was a gentleman named C.H. Fellowes who was the tattoo artist in the highest demand. He would hop on board the American navy fleet ships and perform tattoos both on board, as well as in the various ports of call made by the sailors. It was actually the men in the navy who created the high demand for tattoos around this time, as they wanted some sort of memory of home on their bodies before being whisked off to parts unknown. American flags, eagles, and voluptuous pin-up girls were often the subject they chose, and those images are still part of the American Traditional style of tattooing that is done to this day.
The biggest change in tattooing in the US was delivered by a man named Samuel O’Reilly. He also operated a shop in New York City, and like every other tattoo artist of the time, he used the traditional method of dipping needles, attached to a wooden handle, in ink and essentially hammering in the color. O’Reilly was known as a bit of a mechanical tinkerer, and he believed there was an easier way to transfer the ink to skin. He went on to invent and patent the first tattoo machine in 1891, thus assuring himself a place in tattooing history folklore.
O’Reilly hired an apprentice named Charles Wagner to help him keep up with the number of clients that were now coming through the doors of his shop. Word of his new invention spread fast, and everyone, especially men in the US Navy, wanted a little piece of the action. After O’Reilly passed, Wagner kept on working, and fell into some trouble during World War II when it was deemed that his practices were not particularly healthy, to which he replied that he did not have time to sterilize every needle because of how busy he was.
Tattooing slowly spread from the major cities to the rest of America, but it wasn’t really until the 90’s that the art form was truly accepted. A couple of major art shows were held to commemorate great drawings done by legendary tattoo artists, and pretty soon, reality TV shows hit the air, turning some tattoo artists into celebrities overnight. While tattoos are now more popular than ever, it’s still nice to see that there are artists out there still taking the time to honor the men who got the ball rolling with those traditional American pieces.