American Tattoo Culture’s Messy Past and Hopeful Future

Woman sitting on a road. Her back has elaborate tattoo
Photo by Jermaine Ulinwa from Pexels

Over the last several decades, tattoo studios have moved from back alleys to main streets. The U.S. tattoo industry consistently reports nearly two billion dollars in annual earnings, with a projected growth of 8% over the next ten years. And yet, the days of tattoos marking someone as an outcast were not that long ago.       

For most of their history, tattoos in the US were embedded in a process of Othering. Early on, missionaries and pioneers tried hard to eradicate the practice, which was important to Native American tribes like the Mojave and the Yurok people. In the early 20th century, Non-Indigenous tattooing, such as European-style collections of random images, was popular among people on the fringes of society: for example, sailors, criminals, and the traveling people of circus sideshows.

But the 1960s began a “tattoo renaissance” that redefined this type of body modification as an artistic and cultural movement. Moving away from simple motifs, tattoo artists began to explore traditions from various cultures and develop methods that redefined body art across multiple subcultural spaces. After the lifting of the prohibition of tattoos in 1989 in New York, the trade exploded. By the 2000s, the “artification” of the tattoo had reached a climax. The internet, together with reality TV shows such as Miami Ink (and countless others that followed), catapulted tattooing into the mainstream. 

Ultimately, the history of the American tattoo renaissance echoes that of the broader history of the US: it is characterized by encounter and appropriation alongside trans-cultural appreciation. It is a history of eccentrics and visionaries, sexism and discrimination, technological advances and cultural conquest, and in the end, one of capitalism. Still an ever-evolving, diversifying field, tattooing has the potential to be an inclusive practice across boundaries of class, race and gender, but only if one reckons with its complicated past. 

Sailing Toward a Respected Craft 

A red-haired pin-up girl tattoo design
A Sailor Jerry design. Source: Pixy.org

From the 1940s through the 1960s, many tattoo shops in the U.S. were located near harbors, such as the legendary Long Beach Pike. After payday, servicemen would get tattoos. What mattered to tattoo shops was less the artistic quality of a tattoo than the speed with which it could be applied. Therefore, the range of colors and motifs was fairly limited. The community of tattooers was small and often hostile to outsiders, and people interested in learning to tattoo had to gain the favour of a respected artist, who would then take them under their wing. After finishing apprenticeship, newly minted tattooers would set out on their own, sometimes with their shop’s “flash.” For the most part, they would simply replicate these generic designs in new spaces, only sometimes with slight alterations.

It was from this context that a “visionary” like Sailor Jerry began a distinctly American movement. Born Norman Keith Collins, he was based in Hawaii and trained by Filipino-Hawaiian tattoo artist Valentine Galang. He attempted to popularize (and professionalize) American tattooing as early as the 1940s and is known for his role in shaping the field’s transition from “craft” to “art.” His innovations included experimentation with pigments, ink, and corresponding with international tattoo artists (particularly from Japan). This merging of Japanese tattoo traditions with the sailor aesthetic is what led to his distinctly American style.

Jerry also engaged in what Tara Isabella Burton has called white male genius behavior: he was known for being volatile and prone to legendary feuds with other tattoo artists whom he deemed subpar. It took Ed Hardy, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, several years of correspondence to finally be allowed to visit him in Hawai’i. Once there, Jerry was generous with sharing his knowledge and connections. But Hardy was also subjected to what he called “Jerry’s constant tirades”: that is, his conspiracy theories and bizarre equal-opportunity racism that “extended to everyone except the Chinese.”  This background illustrates the complicated politics of art and appropriation in American tattoo culture. While Jerry was undoubtedly dedicated to advancing American tattooing, and respected his international colleagues, he also was a true child of his time: he never questioned the ethics of taking formula for ink or even design elements from a culture that he obviously despised. 

Hardy ended up going to study under Master Horihide in Japan in 1973 and returned to the U.S. with a better understanding of the intricacies of Japanese tattoo culture. Simply copying Japanese artwork was not acceptable to Hardy anymore. He developed his very own, now-iconic style, merging elements of American and Japanese designs, which was popularized by fashion designer Christian Audigier in the early 2000s (until Hardy took back the designs from Audigier). 

Today, Japanese tattoos, with their clear lines and bold colors, are still highly popular in the U.S., whereas in Japan, to this day, tattoos (irezumi) are still taboo and often associated with organized crime. Moreover, given the long history of discrimination Japanese people have endured in the U.S., wearing a tattoo with Japanese imagery can be perceived as problematic. Similar to the kimono, traditional Japanese tattoos are more than just a fashionable accessory; they implicate an ambiguous history of racism, transnational admiration, appropriation and artistic growth. 

Walking the fine line: Cholo Culture

While Ed Hardy was apprenticing in Japan, another tattooing tradition was taking root in southern California. With the influx of Mexican immigrants in the 1940s, a new youth subculture emerged, the Pachucos, who tattooed small crosses between their thumb and forefinger (recently portrayed in Penny Dreadful: “City of Angels”). By the late 1960s, cholo culture emerged as both a reaction to marginalization and an affirmation of Mexican heritage and identity. 

Associated with lower socio-economic status and sometimes gang activity, cholo culture provided a sense of belonging for the children of Mexican migrant laborers, who faced discrimination and police harassment. Chicanos in southern California prisons invented a technique called “fine-line,” which was later known as “black and grey.” Building a make-shift tattoo machine out of a tape recorder and the e-string of a guitar, and making ink out of ashes and grease,  they decorated their bodies with imagery important to them and their community: the Virgin Mary, boldly-lettered names, Aztec designs, and photo-realistic portraits of loved ones. 

When East L.A. tattooers Jack Rudy and Charlie Cartwright met Ed Hardy at the second tattoo convention in 1977 in Las Vegas, “worlds collided.” Realizing the artistic and commercial potential of the style, Hardy and the others opened TattooLand, a tattoo studio on Whittier Boulevard in the heart of East L.A. Hardy soon began incorporating the “exquisite lettering” of Chicano tattooing, while the others began to experiment with colors in their tattoos. 

Each of the artists would reject the notion that they were adopting or appropriating traditions from one another. When asked why he wanted to learn about color tattoos from Ed Hardy, Chicano artist Freddie Negrete said: “I didn’t want to do what he was doing, I wanted to know how he was doing it.”

The fine line between appropriation and art in tattooing, then, seems to be honoring the aspect of craft rather than a specific design. To be sure, not only tattooing, the entire art world is struggling to clearly differentiate between “inspiration” “originality”, “influences,” “plagiarism” and “appropriation.” And while there may be legal definitions of plagiarism or appropriation of designs, there is also an ethical dimension to borrowing, or using elements of other cultures’ artistic traditions. Simply put: just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should.  

There is certainly a tension within Ed Hardy (and others) using their white male privilege to push fine-line/black-and grey tattooing into the mainstream. While their work has brought much-needed visibility to Chicano artists in an industry dominated by white men and Americana imagery, ultimately economic and racial politics have kept white male artists at the center of the story.  Other cultures that have historically practiced tattooing have encountered a similar phenomenon: after years of vilifying tattooing and once traditional tattooing had almost died out, white people “re-discovered” the practice, centered themselves,  commodifying and popularizing it.

A Converse High Top with Ed Hardy tattoo design
An Ed Hardy Converse collaboration from 2008. Source: Wikipedia

Polynesian Tattoos: Cultural encounter, appropriation, global capitalism

In the 1980s tattooer Mike Malone was living in Hawai’i, a state with its own traumatic colonization history. Studying the designs of Indigenous Hawaiian tattoos and came up with what is now known as “Hawaiian band,” a tribal-looking tattoo design that wraps around the arm. The trend was readily embraced by locals, and many hail Malone as the person who “spur[red] the Hawaiian tattoo revival.” Similarly, California tattooer Leo Zululeta wanted to preserve Micronesian tattooing traditions, and began to copy designs and altering them, ultimately popularizing what is now known as “tribals,” a ubiquitous tattoo style of the 1990s and early 2000s. 

It would be simplistic to call Malone and Zululeta’s art mere appropriation, as both of them used the traditional designs as inspiration instead of simply copying them, unlike others who replicated Indigenous designs with no changes. Still, elevating individual artists to preservers of culture overlooks the nascent revival of traditional Polynesian cultures that was happening all over Oceania in the late 1970s and early 80s. Without the support of the local population, neither artist would have had the success they enjoyed. 

This example points to the underlying crux of the matter: art or craft, the practice of tattooing is embedded in a global, capitalist system, characterized by supply and demand, commodification and exploitation. Sailor Jerry, Ed Hardy and others’ reconceptualization of (Western) tattoos as art made tattooing interesting to new demographics and opened new markets to them. However, it also inadvertently opened the doors for appropriation of Indigenous practices and fetishization of marginalized communities, such as Cholo culture. This two-fold process was accelerated by technological advances. The advent of the internet, it seemed, finalized the transition from the tattoo as cultural signifier, or in-group sign to a global, capitalist commodity. During the complacent 2000s, the tattoo had become a fashionable accessory, denoting the individuality of the wearer, entrenched in discourses of middle-class heteronormativity

However, the global reach of the internet also harbored the possibility of democratization of the field. Digital photography allowed people to share images of their tattoos, connect easier and foster professional communities. Tattooing shifted from a symbol of outlaw masculinity or military insignia to artistic expression to an individual practice of self-affirmation among diverse clientele — a change in which female tattooers have been instrumental

Enter Gender Politics

Female tattooers have been largely marginalized throughout the history of the tradition. By the early 20th century, some women were learning to tattoo from their husbands. Often, the reasoning behind teaching their wives was economic: Two people could speed up the tattooing process and increase customer turnover. Of course, there were only a few female tattooers who made it out on their own. Famous San Diego tattooer, Nell Bowen, also known as “Painless Nell,” dominated the San Diego tattoo scene in the 1940s. 

According to feminist scholar Beverly Yuen-Thompson, in the 1970s, “protest cultures challenged body politics, and the feminist movement encouraged women to demonstrate control over their own bodies.”  But even with the changing gender ethos, women in the 70s and 80s  who wanted to participate in tattooing had to be deemed worthy by an established (male) tattooer. Once they had entered the trade, hazing, sexism and harassment was par for the course. 

Still, they diversified the tattooing by their sheer presence and pushed for innovation: Sheila May of Wisconsin, for example, experimented with cosmetic tattooing as early as the 1970’s, while Cynthia Witkin incorporated elements of her Navajo heritage into her designs. Often, female tattoo artists attracted a new audience, such as Ruth Marten reaching out to the LGBTQIA+ community, or Jacci Gresham, first female black tattoo artist who popularized tattooing for African Americans in New Orleans.

Moreover, it was female tattoo artists that began with imbuing Western tattoos with meaning, connecting them to life narratives and questions of power. To many women, getting a tattoo was political: it was meant to exert control over one’s own body. Female tattooers listened to their clients’ stories and created specific designs for them. As such, they connected the personal and the political: tattooing became an act of self-expression and self-affirmation, rather than an in-group insignia. The idea that tattoos have a specific assigned “meaning” or are “telling a story” by now is strongly embedded in our notions of why people in Western countries get tattoos. 

A Diversifying Field: reclaiming tradition(s), speaking out

History is messy and fraught with questions of power. Suppressed colonial pasts, appropriation, and our need to turn multi-faceted, complicated characters into one-dimensional heroes, have a habit of coming back to haunt us. The history of the US (and later global) tattoo renaissance is no exception. Acknowledging these spectres, however, is the only way to move forward. 

In recent years, many Indigenous groups have been calling attention to problematic appropriations of their cultural heritage, reclaimed tattooing, and even used the hybridity inherent in the cultural practice of tattooing to their advantage. In New Zealand, for example, a distinction is drawn between moko (tattoos reserved for Māori clients, done by Māori artists) and kirituhi. “Kirituhi,” writes Māori artist Taryn Beri, “is a way for us to share our cultural arts with people from around the world in a respectful manner, and for non-Māori artists to enjoy our beautiful art form as well.”

In Samoa, the Su’ulape family (a traditional tattooing family) incorporated several non-Samoan tattooers from around the world into their family in a traditional title-bestowing ceremony in 2001. The tattooers were instructed in traditional Samoan tattooing techniques and were officially given the rights to use the traditional tools. This was done not only to provide Samoan tattooing with greater visibility, but also to provide the Sa’ Sua (the tattooing family) “with a sense of control over who appropriates, uses and renders Samoan designs overseas,” according to historian Sean Mallon

Likewise, there is a growing awareness of power issues among Western tattoo artists, who have taken to educating clients about the background of their tattoos. Moreover, many tattoo studios “focus on making their shop welcoming to marginalized communities,” according to Chris Moore, tattoo-artist and curator of “Body of Work: Tattoo Culture” for the Museum of Pop Culture, Seattle.

Still, this won’t happen without hard conversations followed by tangible changes. Tann Parker, founder of “Ink The Diaspora,” a visual blog highlighting tattoos on dark skin and the artists behind them, has chosen to speak out about racism in the tattoo community, pushing for progress. Even tattoo magazines, previously known for sleaze rather than art, are now dedicated to amplifying inclusivity and the voices of those who have been ignored in for many years — such as  LGBTQ*communities, BIPOC, and other communities previously excluded. The days of gatekeeping within the tattoo community are hopefully numbered. The culture of tattoos appears to be moving toward inclusivity; coming a long way from days of racism, appropriation, sexism and reinforcing global power structures.  

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