Tattooing has been practiced worldwide since at least Neolithic times, as evidenced by mummified preserved skin, ancient art and the archaeological record. Ethnographic and historical texts reveal that just about every human culture has used it in historic times.
In the West, tattoos became popular in the 20th century. They were no longer reserved for circus freaks, sailors and soldiers but were adopted as a form of self-expression.
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The origins of tattooing can be traced back to Polynesian cultures. Samoa, Hawaii, and Tahiti are just a few islands where the practice was a part of everyday life.
In this region, the markings symbolized a person’s status, rank, ancestry, and skills. They were also considered a sign of respect, honor and pride.
These traditions were later adapted by English sailors who visited the South Pacific on their way to Japan. These sailors re-introduced the tattoo to Europe, spreading the practice throughout England. The first 75 years of American tattooing are covered in vintage tattoo flash, from the Bowery in New York City in the 1900s to Texas in the 1950s, and from the Pike in the 1960s to the invention of the first black-and-gray, single-needle tattooing in Los Angeles in the 1970s.
Throughout the 1800s, circuses and carnival sideshows were popular places to see tattooed performers. Many would perform acts such as sword swallowing, juggling, and contortion to draw in crowds. Interestingly, some of these tattooed performers were women. They drew much attention from the crowds because seeing a woman with tattoos was unusual in those times.
Nora Hildebrandt was among the first tattooed women to appear in a circus. She earned a living from her ink, even traveling worldwide.
The Civil War was a massive time for tattooing. Throughout the conflict, soldiers and sailors often got inked for reasons that ranged from regional pride to military tradition or job motivation.
One soldier, Paul Stekle, wore a bull’s head as a sign of his German heritage. Another, Private Alfred T. Hardey, wore his heart on his sleeve to honor his son, whom he was raising while serving in the Army. Tattooing was also a way to identify soldiers who died in battle. In addition, it was a popular form of self-defense. In some cultures, tattoos were used to mark enslaved people and criminals.
During the Holocaust, concentration camp prisoners at Auschwitz and its sub-camps, Birkenau and Monowitz, received tattoos across their chests. It was in addition to their registration numbers sewn to their prison uniforms. However, several prisoners were not tattooed, including ethnic Germans (Gestapo arrestees), reeducation prisoners, police prisoners and inmates selected for immediate extermination. One man who was a prisoner at Auschwitz was Lali Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who was forced to tattoo the numbers of thousands of prisoners entering the camp. Sokolov’s story was published recently in the book The Tattooist of Auschwitz by an Australian author named Heather Morris.
Tattooing is a cultural practice that dates back thousands of years. Sailors brought it to the Western world during their travels in Asia and the South Pacific.
Aside from being a fun way to commemorate a trip or milestone, tattoos also had much meaning for sailors. Some designs were based on their specific experiences or locations, like dragons for Asia or hula girls for Hawaii.
Other symbols were a sign of safety or stability, like the anchor. They were believed to keep sailors safe if they got separated from their ships and drowned. Pigs and roosters were also common tattoos, as they were often kept on ships to prevent them from sinking.