The Evolution of the Tattoo Artist

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 11, 2020
    Last Updated: January 3, 2021

We know that the tattoo dates back to ancient civilizations. Anthropologists and historians spend much time speculating on the meaning of tattoos for people of the past and the present. We often don’t think about the tattoo artist, but even the earliest tattoos had to have someone doing the inking.

If you’ve ever wondered about the pioneers of tattoo art and how they have evolved over the years, this article will trace the evolution of the tattoo artist.

Ancient Cultures

The earliest evidence of tattooing goes back 40,000 years to the Paleolithic Era. While virtually nothing is known about these early tattoo artists, there is evidence of a tattoo tool made out of bone and pigment that was likely used for the ink. 

It’s speculated that early tattoos served as religious symbols, rites of passage, healing elements, or as a means of frightening the enemy during warfare. It’s likely that early tattoo artists were admired members of their tribes and even religious leaders.

Oldest Tattoo Tool in North America

The oldest tattooing tool in North America dated back to around 2,000 years ago and was created by the ancestral Pueblo people. The tool is made of skunkbush sumac, yucca leaves and cactus spines. Archaeologists are confident it was used for tattooing due to the black stains on the tips.

17th-18th Century Europe

The art of tattooing had somewhat fallen by the wayside in Europe by the later middle ages and into the Renaissance. However, as European explorers set out toward both the east and west, they rediscovered the art as they met indigenous people. 

The sailors started getting tattoos themselves and even brought tattooed natives back to Europe. Tattoos regained a measure of popularity and tattoo artists opened up a few behind the scenes shops to serve them. 

19th Century

By the 1800s, tattoos were popular only in the lower classes, particularly with those in the circus and other entertainment professions. The job of the tattoo artist was far from a revered profession. Sailors in the American military would also get tattoos to identify them if captured or lost at sea. Still, in America, the tattoo artist wasn’t considered a proper profession.

First Professional Tattoo Artist

Martin Hildebrandt wasn’t the first tattoo artist, but he is the first artist with his name on record. He began his tattooing career as a sailor aboard a frigate in 1846 and later served as a tattoo artist for soldiers during the Civil War.

After the war, Hildebrandt set up a tattoo parlor in Manhattan in 1875. Although this parlor likely wasn’t the first in the United States, it’s the first to go officially on record as a permanent establishment for tattooing.

Martin Hildebrandt

Samuel O’Reilly

By the mid-1880s, tattooing in the United States had become a symbol of prosperity. Samuel O’Reilly was another famous artist who emerged during this time. By the 1890s, he invented the first electric tattooing machine. He used Thomas Edison’s invention, the rotary stencil pen, as inspiration.

O’Reilly’s invention revolutionized the field, as it made it possible to pierce the skin many more times per minute instead of the hand-poke method. It drastically reduced the amount of time it took to get a tattoo.

Samuel O’Reilly

Early 20th Century

In the 1900s, tattoos saw a decline in the upper classes and “respectable” people deemed them for the lower classes. Both tattoos and tattoo artists fell out of favor with the general public. Most tattoo artists and parlors moved to the seedier parts of the city. For the few people who wanted a tattoo at this time, they were done undercover.

Tattoos were so taboo that many towns made the act illegal and worked to shut down tattoo parlors. Intrepid artists still found a way to work, yet because there were no regulations, outbreaks of diseases like Hepatitis C were often associated with these parlors. Even people who wanted tattoos were wary about getting inked.

Charlie Wagner

In the early 1900s, Charlie Wagner, an apprentice to O’Reilly, patented a new tattoo machine and eventually became a renowned artist. Sadly, Wagner was also arrested for practicing his art on children, further bringing the art into disrepute.

Charlie Wagner

Jesse Knight

Jesse Knight came onto the scene in the UK in the early 1920s. She was the first official female tattoo artist and was wildly popular by the age of 18. Her most common clients were sailors from all over the world, though she eventually branched out to the general public, and her popularity peaked in the 1940s.

Jessie Knight

The 1950s-60s

The late 1950s saw the dawn of the tattoo renaissance. Tattoos came back into fashion with the general public, even if New York City maintained a tattoo parlor ban until 1997. Several famous tattoo artists emerged during this period, including Ed Hardy and Bert Grimm. Many of these new artists tattooed in the Japanese style.

Artist Lyle Tuttle inked the famous singer Janis Joplin in the 1960s. As Joplin was famous, her tattoos made the art more acceptable to the public.

The Council of the Seven

By the 1970s, tattoos were becoming much more mainstream. In 1972, the first international tattoo convention, dubbed The Council of the Seven, was held in Hawaii. 

First World Tattoo Convention

In 1975-76, the first world tattoo convention was held in Houston, TX. Many experts agree that this convention went a long way in making tattooing and the profession of the tattoo artist into a legitimate career. Artists were able to share their unique styles, techniques and trade secrets.


Today, tattoos are commonplace and tattoo artists are a legitimate profession. There are training programs, certifications and licenses to ensure technique, talent and safety. As with many other careers, tattoo artists have to study and hone their craft, often working several years as an apprentice before striking out independently.


Tattoo artists have a long and complicated history. They have gone from revered members of their tribes to social outcasts, forced to secretly practice their craft. While tattoos and the people who create them are now much more mainstream, many still consider the art to be an alternative career.

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