Posted in Uncategorized on September 1st, 2009 by Christine

Tattoos Come to New York City


Prominent New York City Tattooists

NYC Tattooists

Journey of a Tattoo Artist: the History of Tattoo

Modern tattoo: the mark of difference, of rebellion, of history. The long journey of the tattoo has brought it to where it is today: a fashionable branding of the body, usually serving the purpose of reflecting an individual’s personality. Although the motives for getting a tattoo have changed radically, the process has stayed essentially the same.

The technique involved behind making a tattoo is comprised of a series of scrupulous steps. The approach was most likely discovered when someone had a small wound and rubbed it with a hand that was dirty with soot and ashes from a fire. The insertion of these pigments under the skin obviously resulted in a permanent coloration. Nowadays, the artists inject ink deep into the dermis layer of your skin (since the top layer, epidermis, sheds easily and makes the tattoo temporary). Just like sharp pieces of bone were used many centuries ago, high-speed needles (up to 30,000 punctures per minute) are employed to deliver the ink under the skin. To apply the design, a stippling, or a series of dots, is first used. The density of these dots determines the brightness and lucidity of the design. Virtually any design and any color can be applied with modern technology. After the artist is done with your tattoo, it needs to be cared for as if it were a wound, which it essentially is.

Examining the tattoo art as it is today makes it hard to believe that this craft was around for thousands of years. It has, however, evolved beyond recognition and has taken on an entirely new set of cultural associations. Although tattoo seems to be an integral part of our society, it actually originated in Pacific island cultures like Tahiti, Samoa and Hawaii, among people whose cultural values and practices were radically different from those who came to be associated with tattooing. (1) With changes of time and place, the purpose of tattoos has been altered dramatically. For centuries, tattoos have been used to reflect changes in life status, whether it be passage into adulthood or introduction into a group like the military or a gang. But in recent years, tattoos have become a fashion accessory, perhaps causing the loss of some of the seriousness of the ritual and the symbolism behind it.

The history of tattoo’s introduction to the West includes colonialism, appropriation, and cross-fertilization. It all began with voyages of discovery, colonialism and missionary activity in the islands of the Pacific in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (1) Tattooing in Polynesia can be traced to at least the second millennium B.C., as supported by numerous pieces of archeological evidence. Captain Cook, sailing with the British navy was first to encounter Polynesian tattooing, and the first westerner to use the Tahitian word “ta-tu”. Polynesian tattoos were characterized by the use of lines, stars and various other geometric designs, as well as figures of animals and humans. (1) A major part of bringing tattoo to Europe was played by Cook’s crewmen, who started getting tattooed by the native people. Later on, even more thorough cultural diffusion took place as westerners influenced the tattoo designs that Polynesians used. Better, much safer tools were also introduced to the Polynesian cultures by Westerners. Unfortunately, tattoo was considered to be a rather primitive art when it was first made known in Europe, and the notion was reinforced further because the tattooed people were considered primitive themselves. Many of them were used as freaks at world’s fairs to make money, thereby making tattoo an unacceptable form of decoration for the white Europeans. (1) As we can see, tattooing in its early stage was rather paradoxical: although a tattoo was considered to be a mark of the savage, Cook’s sailors were eager to be tattooed by Polynesian natives. It is fascinating how solely through these adventurous sailors the entire Western world will soon accept tattoo as an art.

European and U.S. tattooists eventually began to adopt the techniques and creating a more acceptable form of tattoo—that which emphasized patriotism. The technological part of the field began to rapidly develop. The first known professional tattoo artist in the United States was Martin Hildebrandt, who opened his shop in New York City in 1846. (1) Hilderbrandt’s success with his New York studio inspired others to imitate him. (4) This officially marks the settlement of tattoo art in the city. He tattooed not only sailors but also soldiers (during the Civil War) and was influential in establishing the U.S. tradition of tattooed troopers. After the Spanish-American War, the aristocracy of England suddenly took an interest in tattoo, but the fad ended by the beginning of World War I. (1) The higher classes abandoned the craze because, as new and better machines were emerging, the service became accessible to lower classes and was therefore no longer in demand by the rich. These new electric tattoo machines gave root to the true Americana style of tattooing: strong black lines, heavy black shading and a dab of color. (1) Roses, hearts, daggers, serpents, military insignia, even cartoon characters such as Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse all comprised the Americana style. (2) Besides this, many other styles influenced the American tattoo in the twentieth century, including military European themes and Asian designs. Tattooing became popular among the cultural and social elite at the end of the nineteenth century. (3) Nevertheless, tattoos remained most popular with the military and the navy, making times of war extremely popular for tattooists. The navy, however, soon set some rules prohibiting obscene tattoos, which prompted tattooists to perform cover up services, where they “painted” over tattoos of naked females, turning them into clothed nurses or hula dancers. (1)

During this time, tattooists were basically working men with no formal training and it was accepted that pretty much anyone can tattoo. This lack of specialization was coupled with the grisly competitiveness of the tattoo supply business which would result in shady dealings such as selling damaged equipment. There was a limited set of designs circulating which the tattooists were able to do and customized work was rare.

The Golden Age of Tattooing in New York came about during the period between the two World Wars. At this time, tattooing was probably at its highest level of social approval because of its link with patriotism. (1) The link between soldiers and sailors and tattooing was so strong at this time that it was assumed a man with tattoos was serving in the armed forces. Outside of the military, tattoos were also popular among parents who tattooed their children for security reasons, as well as tattooing one’s Social Security number. In 1955, the assistant secretary of defense suggested that all U.S. citizens have their blood type tattooed onto their bodies in anticipation of a military attack on the U.S. and many citizens actually complied. (1)

During the sixties, the tattoo industry experienced a fragmentation and degradation. After World War II, the popularity of tattoos began to decline and although traditional tattooing was still practiced among many working class men, a new form of confrontational, biker style of tattooing was developing on the streets. This new style gave tattoos a bad name, due to its association with gangs and crime and the connotation still stands today. The fragmentation, therefore, broke up the tattoo art into the following social groups: servicemen, gang members, convicts, bikers and working class men and women. (1) As a result, tattoos increasing became identified with deviants and criminals.

The next major chapter in the history of tattoo in New York was the Tattoo Renaissance, a period marked by technological, artistic and social changes. During this time, members of the counterculture began to wear tattoos as a sign of resistance to heterosexual, white, middle class values and a new tattoo image began to emerge. (1) The tattooists themselves began to change, as artists with backgrounds in fine art began to enter the field. In addition, inspiration was taken from realms outside of America, including Japan, Samoa and Native America. An influential tattooist by the name of Sailor Jerry Collins introduced Japanese tattoo imagery and style to American tattooists, like the New York based Ed Hardy, and others. The idea of using the entire body for one design was taken from the Japenese. Also, unlike traditional American tattooing, which was seen as folksy and primitive, Japanese tattooing was thought to be modern, sophisticated and lined to the more spiritual and refined East. This definitely helped the suffering reputation of tattoo and gave the art a new hope. Then, during the 1970’s the hippies had a colossal impact on the tattoo industry and caused a lot of new styles to be introduced. During this time, tribal tattoos also became greatly popular

In the early 1990s, the tattoo became a fad, a lifestyle emblem, a new way to distinguish oneself. (3) The popularity the art gained during the Renaissance did not wane but this brought both positive and negative changes. Much more of the work done today is custom work and tattooists discourage their customers from getting a tattoo from a pre-drawn flash. Tattoo is much more socially accepted as an individual expression and is less associated with criminal activity. On the other hand, as the industry is booming, many people try to become tattoo artists without any professional training. Altough tattoo evolution is far from over, it has certainly come along way from its sailor days.


Caplan, Jane. Written on the Body: the Tattoo in European and American History.
Princeton University Press, 2000 (2)

Demello, Margo. A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. Duke
University Press, 2000 (1)

Gilbert, Steve. Tattoo History: A Source Book. Juno Books, 2000 (4)

Hardy, Lal. The Mammoth Book of Tattoos. Running Press, 2009

Hesselt van Dinter, Maarten. The World of Tattoo: an Illustrated History.
Amsterdam: Kit Publishers, 2005 (3)

Rush, John. Spiritual Tattoo: a Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing,
Scarification, Branding, and Implants. Frog Books, 2005

The makers of this website and collectors of the information gathered are student at the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College. During December of the Fall 2009 semester, we formed a group and chose tattoo art as the subject for our final project.

On this website you found information and videos that detailed the history of tattooing, the history of tattooing in New York City, and various prominent NYC tattooists.

We hope you enjoyed.