Tattoo History Timeline
This is a dynamic post trying to document the most important milestones in tattoo history
While there are no records and no one can be entirely sure, historical evidence seems to show tattooing probably first made an appearance almost 40,000 years ago, in the Upper Paleolithic era (the Stone Ages). Evidence of tattooing that included bone tattoo tools and pigments were found by accident by an American researcher.
The history of tattoo began over 5000 years ago and is as diverse as the people who wear them. Despite the social sciences’ growing fascination with tattooing and the immense popularity of tattoos themselves, the practice has not left much of an historical record.
The first tattoos probably were created by accident. Tattoos are created by inserting colored materials beneath the skins surface. When someone had a small wound, they probably rubbed it with a hand that was dirty with soot and ashes from the fire, and once the wound had healed, they saw that a mark stayed permanently. They were then used for healing, religion and punishment.
The word tattoo is said to have two major derivations. The first, from the Polynesian word ‘ta’ which means ‘striking something’, and the second, from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ which means ‘to mark something’.
Tattoos have been found on mummified preserved skin. The oldest evidence of tattooed skin was found to be from between 3370 and 3100 BC.
The mummy was dubbed “Ötzi the ice man” and researchers discovered 57 oddly positioned tattoos on this man’s body. These included a cross on the inside of his left knee, lines running straight down over his kidneys, and parallel lines running across his ankles. Researchers believe that his tattoos were used for medical purposes; possibly to heal ailments like arthritis, etc. because their placement resembles acupuncture. Other mummies were found near the end of the 2nd millenium near Egypt (tattoos were found mostly on women) and Russia as well.
On February of 2019 Andrew Gillreath‑Brown, an anthropology PhD candidate at Washington State University, discovered the oldest tattooing artifact in western North America. The tool was made about 2,000 years ago by the Ancestral Pueblo people in what is now southeastern Utah. He chanced upon the pen‑sized instrument while taking an inventory of archaeological materials that had been sitting in storage for more than 40 years. The tool consists of a 3 ½ inch wooden skunkbush sumac handle bound at the end with split yucca leaves and holding two parallel cactus spines, stained black at their tips. source
Bundled and hafted, or handled, cactus spine tattoo tools from Arizona and New Mexico dated between AD 1100‑1280 provide the best archaeological examples of early tattoo implements from the Southwest America.
Firemen, laborers and prostitutes wore tattoos to communicate their status in 17th century Japan.
Tattoos became popular among European sailors. A sailor by the name of William Dampier was responsible for reintroducing the practice of tattooing to Western societies, by bringing a fully tattooed man to London, by the name of Prince Giolo, who became a sensation for the London public.
Almost a hundred years later after Dampier brought a tattooed man to England, Captain James Cook made several trips to the South Pacific in the late 1760’s to see these tattooed people for himself. In a way, Captain James Cook was like the new Dampier. He brought another tattooed Polynesian man to London and he was once again a hit. The upper class citizens of Europe soon started getting tattooed in discreet places. link
Captain Cook was the first to transmit the meaning of the word 'tattoo' to the Western world. In Tahitian language, 'tatau' means 'to strike' and/or 'to mark' something. According to his diary "both sexes paint their bodies, Tattow, as it is called in their language. This is done by inlaying the colour of black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible."
During the 1800’s, the popularity of the tattoo started to decline with the said “normal” people. They were seen more on the people deemed “freaks.” Tattooed people were often seen in circuses because the people running the circus thought it would bring them more earnings. When the American public began losing interest in the smaller circuses, many of these heavily tattooed people had to join larger circuses or open up their own tattoo parlors.
In north America, tattoos started out at sea. Seamen would get tattooed to help identify themselves as Americans. A sailor's tattoos and other identifying information would be written on protection papers, and this would help them avoid impressment by British Navy ships. Tattoos could also help identify their bodies if lost at sea.
Martin Hildebrandt started tattooing in 1846 as a sailor aboard the frigate United States. Martin is considered the first professional tattoo artist in America. He tattooed soldiers during the civil war.
According to Michelle Myles (owner of Daredevil Tattoo in Manhattan), Martin Hildebrandt established a shop at 77 James Street at the corner of Oak in Manhattan in 1875 and worked there for 5 years. It is believed this was the first permanent place of business for tattooing in the United States.
In 1880, Hildebrandt tattooed at 36 1/2 Oak Street. By then, tattooing was seen as a mark of wealth.
Samuel O’Reilly began tattooing in New York around the mid-1880s, and by the decade’s end, he had made his name in tattooing. O'Reilly first owned a shop at #5 Chatham Square on Broadway and the Bowery in New York City.
In the early 1900’s, tattoos were declining even more in popularity than they did in the 1800s and were losing much of their credibility. Parlors were only in the slums of cities and everyone associated with tattoos was considered sleazy. The view on tattoos became so bad that tattoos began going “underground”. Tattooing was done in secret for those who were even interested in getting them anymore.
Cities would try to shut down any tattoo parlor that they could and many cities outlawed the creation of parlors. This is why much of it had to be done in secret.
Many parlors did not follow sanitary codes, so they ended up being outbreaks of hepatitis C, blood poisoning, and other diseases. When people heard about all of these diseases spreading, most people (even the “freaks”) were reluctant to get tattoos. The credibility of tattoos was almost non-existent: no one wanted tattoos!
According to documents of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, in April of 1899, O’Reilly filed charges against Getchell, claiming that he had infringed on his patent by selling machines made according to the patent “within the district of Massachusetts and elsewhere,” and that he was “threatening to make the aforesaid tattooing machines in large quantities, and to supply the market therewith and to sell the same…” Getchell then hired a lawyer and moved to a new shop down the street at 11 Chatham Square. link
In 1904, Samuel O’Reilly moved to #11 Chatham Square when the previous tenant, tattoo artist Elmer Getchell, left the city. O'Reilly operated out of his shop for 5 years, and his student Charlie Wagner carried on there when he died in 1909, until his death in 1953.
Charlie Wagner’s 1904 tattoo machine patent (US Patent 768, 413) was actually a hybrid dental mallet-bell machine and not an adaptation of Thomas Edison’s 1877 electromagnetic stencil pen patent (US Patent 196, 747). link
In 1909, O'Reilly (Wagner’s supposed mentor) passed away. Shortly after, O’Reilly’s ex-wife, who inherited the property upon his death, sold 11 Chatham Square to Wagner, and he continued to tattoo from this famed location that Samuel O 'Reilly had occupied from 1904 to 1909.
By the time Jesse Knight (the first recorded female tattoo artist in the UK) was 18, she was tattooing for a living and drawing in clients – sailors, initially – from across the world.
Sailor Jerry popularized the American Traditional tattooing style in the 1930s.
In the 1930s Dietzel moved to larger quarters at #948 Plankton Avenue in Milwaukee.
Jessie Knight, gave up tattooing for her husband when she got married at 27. They only lasted eight years, and went back to it.
Life Magazine said that only 6% of people were tattooed. Over 300 completely tattooed people were employed in circuses, carnivals and freak shows, often earning $200.00 or more a week (equivalent to $2,000 in today's money).
Mildred Hull, aka Millie, had left the circus and had begun to tattoo with a little help from her long time tattoo artist, Charlie Wagner.
Jesse Knight became hugely popular in the 1940s.
Paul Rogers began a 5 years collaboration with Cap Coleman of Norfolk, who was a legend in the tattoo world already. Their association was a defining milestone in tattoo history, a blend of talent and skill that left an indelible mark on a craft critically shaped by such early practitioners. source
Millie Hull, “New York's only lady tattooer,” commits suicide.
Tahiti Felix opens his own shop in San Pedro, California.
In the summer of 1949, Tahiti Felix relocates and sets up his own tattoo parlour just south of Los Angeles in beautiful San Diego, California with his wife and two sons.
Lyle Tuttle starts tattooing.
The tattoo renaissance began in the late 1950s.
Tony D'Annessa started tattooing in New-York City in the 1950's. He had a shop on 48th street that closed in 1961 because of the New-York city tattoo ban (a ban that lasted until 1997). He moves to Montreal.
As a leading tattoo artist of the 1950s and '60s, Samuel Steward was mentored by Milwaukee-based master tattooist Amund Dietzel. Steward in turn mentored Cliff Ingram, aka Cliff Raven, and Don “Ed” Hardy, later known simply as Ed Hardy, encouraging both to practice the Japanese-style tattooing he himself most admired. link
Lyle Tuttle opens his own shop in 1954.
Crazy Philadelphia Eddie started tattooing in 1952 out of Coney Island, when tattooing was just starting to gain popularity in the USA.
Bert Grimm, the St Louis-based artist, moved to Long Beach, California to set up a shop at the Nu-Pike, 22 S. Chestnut Pl. His parlour was said to be the oldest continually running in the continental US and the place for sailors to get inked. Sold the shop to Bob Shaw in 1969. The place is now called Outer Limits Tattoo and it's owned by Kari Barba. link
In 1961 the state of New York bans tattooing.
Joplin's body art, with a wristlet and a small heart on her left breast, by the San Francisco tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle, was an early moment in the popular culture's acceptance of tattoos as art. link
Greg Iron gets his first tattoo.
Bob Shaw bought Bert's shop at #22 Chestnut, Long Beach.
Tattoos started to become more mainstream.
Samuel Steward retired from tattooing in 1970, and wrote a social history of American tattooing during the 1950s and '60s, which was ultimately published as Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos. link
Rolling Stone talks about The Tattoo Renaissance and Lyle Tuttle. Two pages with photos, and a large front inside cover pic.
The Wall Street Journal did a front page story on Lyle Tuttle, in the personality profile section in 1971.
Kazuo Oguri Horihide traveled to Hawaii to meet Sailor Jerry Collins and share the art and history of Tebori. Sailor Jerry hosted “The Council of the Seven” considered the first international tattoo convention in Hawaii by Shanghai Kate. link
Ed Hardy arrive to Japan in 1973 to study Japanese style. link
Dean Dennis opens Dean’s Tattoo Headquarters in Alameda.
Greg Iron's first tattoo equipment was mail ordered from Spaulding/Rogers around 1975.
The first world tattoo convention was held by Dave Yurkew on January 24–25, 1976 in Houston, Texas. Dave Yurkew, who was also President of the North American Tattoo Club went on to host another 6 consecutive World Tattoo Conventions through 1982. Lyle Tuttle was quoted as saying that this was "The event that changed tattooing forever" link
1978 due to a change in building ownership Dean’s Tattoo Headquarters was forced to move
First annual tattoo conventions begin to arise.
Baba Austin is introduced into tattooing in 1989 by Jonathan Shaw in the Bowery.
Lyle Tuttle officially retires from tattooing, but continues to educate and promote at tattoo conferences and expos worldwide.
Ötzi was found on 19 September 1991.
On January 19–21, 1996, Dave Yurkew and Lyle Tuttle co-hosted the 20th Anniversary of the First World Tattoo Convention in Houston, Texas. link
After tattooing become increasingly popular, tattoo artists were licensed and the practice became legal again in New York.
The popularity of tattoo conventions increases dramatically.
Facebook launches on February 4, 2004. YouTube launches in February 2005. Both platforms will change the tattoo industry in the following years.
According to a survey done in 2006 by the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, 24% of Americans aged 18 to 50 were tattooed and 36% of 18 to 29 year olds were tattooed.
2010 According to a survey done in 2010 by the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, 36% of Americans aged 18 to 50 were tattooed and 40% of 18 to 29 year olds were tattooed.
Instagram launches on October 6, 2010. The platform becomes a must-have tool for tattoo artist, allowing them to improve so much faster, because they’re looking at all of this other work. It’s pushed the aesthetic along quite a bit.
Tattoos are becoming extremely popular and socially acceptable. Tattoo artists are far more respected and some are even considered “fine arts” artists. There is your standard tattoo “parlor” where the pre-designed pictures hang on the walls for one to pick out. They don’t work too much with custom designs. Some consider these shops to be a little more unsanitary than the other type of tattoo shop, which is a tattoo “studio”. This is a tattoo shop that has high end tattoo artists that deal almost entirely with custom designs. These tattoos are a lot more expensive, but you know you’ll be getting a well-done and sanitary tattoo! The art that was once considered to be shameful and despicable is now becoming a socially acceptable trend. Nowadays, your average person will probably have at least 1 tattoo.
In October 2010 Instagram launches. The app boosts the industry change that Facebook and Youtube started five years before.
Rick Walters dies on March 4, 2019.
Lyle Tuttle dies on March 25, 2019.