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Because ornate clothing was only allowed to be worn by royalty, the middle class adorned themselves with ornate body tattoos instead. It was in 1691 that tattooing remerged in Western Europe in “civilized” society. Sailor and explorer William Dampier brought to London the heavily tattooed Polynesian Prince Giolo, known as the Painted Prince. He was placed on exhibition and caused great amazement.
This was a certain money maker for William Dampier, as there had been an absence of tattoos in the West for six centuries. However, it would be another one hundred years before tattooing would really make its mark on the West.
In the late 1700’s the famous explorer Captain Cook made several trips to the South Pacific. London society revelled in his stories and embraced both the art and artefacts he brought back to the West.
On his return from his second trip, Cook brought back one artefact, which would yet again make a sensation in London, a heavily tattooed Polynesian male called Omani. Soon after, members of the higher society were demanding and getting smaller discreetly placed tattoos of their own. The great Omani was seen as a noble savage, and though his tour was clearly a more refined version , he was regarded a “sideshow” exhibit .
Already the tattoo was starting to become a Fad or fashion accessories. In early America tattooing was still in the elitist stage and although we see the tattoo most often displayed by the native Americans, it is well known that tattooing was also practiced by royalty, with many of the elite’s of European moving to America in search of fortunes.
It often amazes people when they hear that people such as, King George V, King Oscar of Sweden, Sir Winston Churchill’s mother, Grand Duke Alexis of Russia and even King Harold were tattooed. While this portion of society is small their influences have prevailed in establishing mainstream ideology.
Tattoo, was at one time, a very expensive and unavailable form of art to mainstream society, which reinforced the attraction to those who regarded themselves amongst the elite. In 1891 the art form was once again transformed with the invention of the first electric tattooing machine by Samuel O’Riley. His invention made tattooing readily available and reasonably priced for everyone, which meant that the average person could now get a tattoo. Because of this the elitist turned away from this art form and tattooing became a fashion accessory of the masses.
This transformation from elitist art to common art, lead tattooing to be associated with the lower classes of society. The troubled people or those who travelled with the circus often displayed tattoos and were associated extravagant facial designs, full body suits and sometimes freakish patterns, which transformed the meaning of this art once again. By the turn of the 20th century the cultural view of tattooing had changed, it was now seen more as a sleazier art form for the poorer classes of society and gradually went underground. Few tattooists were accepted into street society and no longer where they regarded as artists.
Once again, opinions changed about tattooing and gradually it became more acceptable, especially during the second world war when the tattoo became part of the signature of the military personal. The pledge to stay with your outfit couldn’t be displayed better than a piece of art work that would never fade. This type of fraternity between sailors and other military personal grew in popularity. Today this type of pledge tattoo can be seen among college students who pledge loyalty to their fraternities, or street gang members showing their loyalty to the gang.
Many “pledge” tattoos are common among many different types of crowds. However, the booming impact became apparent throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s when once again tattooing came back to mainstream society. Many men displayed them proudly, later telling their children about the wars they had fought and the friends they had lost, all based upon a single tattoo marking a dramatic time in their lives. Time marking types of tattoo are now common, if you ask someone today why they have a certain tattoo, you may hear a story of how that tattoo marked a certain time frame in their personal life.
The most common tattoo displayed by military personal is that of “lady luck,” their unit, military division, and the American eagle . Tattoo shops were generally located near barracks and docks so they could tattoo the incoming military personal. The tattoo shops soon discovered these locations also brought them closure to the criminal element of society and soon many of the tattooed were criminals. After the second world war the tattoo was once again seen as the mark of the deviants within society. Rebellious boys and girls resorted to the tattoo, based on the notion that to have a tattoo was to outside “mainstream” society.
This marked them in a way that displayed their ideology of not wanting to take part in mainstream social order. Soon the military personal that fought for his or her country, who previously displayed with pride their tattoos, began to cover them with shame. Tattooing once again fell from grace. The movement throughout society to regard tattoo as something deviant, and/or savage, was mainly because of mainstream ideology. The culture surrounding the art form had never felt that tattoos were a deviant practice, even though many tattooists often spoke of physically fighting with customers.
However the art world did go through transformations and the people related to the art were soon associated with deviants. The best known groups of the time being bikers, who received tattoos to pledge their fraternities within their particular group. Most often displaying their “colours” or slogans of the group, these bikers fought amongst themselves and caused mayhem where ever they went, often ending up jail, once again giving the impression that tattooing followed the deviant. Through the transformation from elitist to freak, and now to deviant/savage, the art of tattooing signified who not to be associated with.
Such association with the tattoo, would once again alienate the wearer from society. As if the name of tattoo wasn’t already mud in society, in 1961 there was an out break of hepatitis and tattooing was sent reeling on its heels. Though most tattoo shops had sterilization machines, few actually used them. Newspapers reported stories of blood poisoning, hepatitis and other diseases. The general population held tattoo parlours in disrepute, and even today’s tattoo parlours are still suffering the consequences of the past reputation.
A health code violation went into effect therefore leading to many tattoo parlours shutting down. The hippies of the 60’s created many new aspects of how tattooing was viewed and valued by the mainstream society. However, towards the end of the 1960’s attitudes towards tattooing changed, much of the credit goes to Lyle Tuttle. He was a charming, interesting man who knew how to use the media to own advantage. His clientele included celebrities and in particular beautiful women and was approached by magazines and television seeking out information about this ancient art form.
The transformation of the art had never been so swift. The growth of acceptance has grown more over the last 10 years than any other time in history. We have seen this by the advertiser’s use of tattoos, to the MTV crowd of the 80’s, treading their way into the business offices of the world. All classes of people seek the best tattoo artists. This rise in popularity has placed tattooists in the category of “fine artists”. The tattooist has garnered a respect not seen for over 100 years. Today the artwork varies between the older designs, to work done by loved ones, to even abstract pieces.
The artwork has been shown in galleries around the world and the prices for them have skyrocketed. Many people today have even committed to neck and arm tattoo, although social acceptance hasn’t transformed to this extent, it is believed that it soon will. If you take a look inside of your local tattoo studio you will see the difference of what it “was” yesterday, and what “is” today. Many of the transformations of the art of tattoo have been based around social values, social change and those in power defining mainstream values.
This has led tattoo down many roads and we will just have to wait to see where the next bend will be. From my findings I have been able to come to the conclusion that tattoos have indeed moved from being a tribal art form too a more socially accepted admired fashionable art form. This has happened in a totally natural form of evolution. Through the many centuries of tattoo history, it has been the change into a multi cultural world along with a change with our general cultural views that has helped change the art form. As our ancestors began to accept the art form they also changed its meanings.
Although sometimes still showing the station in life of the wearer, the tattoo was very much just another fashion. This was the distinction up to the 1890’s but when tattoos became readily available this saw the biggest change occur, now everyone could get a tattoo, it wasn’t about station in life anymore but fashion, this is still the case today people of all walks of life from dustbin men to doctors, men and women alike get tattoos, now making it an accepted art form in its own right. Art that can be found displayed in galleries, museums and magazines.
Although I feel that the tattoo has lost its original meanings, I do acknowledge the fact that in some cases the tattoo could be viewed still as tribal, what I mean by this is there are still groups in the world such as the “Hells Angles” and other gangs who have tattoos of a tribal nature and in fact you could argue that everyone that has a tattoo is a member of the tattoo tribe.
Bibliography Steven G. Gilbert. Tattoo History Source Book Amy Krakow. Total Tattoo Book Clinton R. Sanders. Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing Thanks to.