The Evolution of the Tattoo Shop

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 9, 2020
    Last Updated: November 11, 2020

Today, tattooing has become an art form. Social media has exploded the popularity of tattoos and raised the bar on the artistry of them. However, this was not always the case, as, throughout history, tattoos were often seen as barbaric, and something only sailors got.

That said, established tattoo shops are relatively new on the scene. It wasn’t long ago when such places were only found in the seedier parts of town and hidden from prying eyes. The history of the tattoo shop is definitely an interesting one.


The Beginning

The history of tattooing stretches back to many ancient cultures, including the Japanese, Egyptian, Polynesian, and many others. Nonetheless, the evolution of tattoos in the United States begins with explorers of the Polynesian Islands, where sailors saw tattoos as normalized practices and picked it up themselves.

James Cook was an explorer who, in 1769, visited Tahiti, where he recorded several cases of tattoo art. The locals called it tautau, which became tattoo to English speakers, and is where we get the word today.

A Barbarous Practice

In America, tattoos began to gain popularity with the lower classes but were frowned upon by the aristocracy. It was seen as something that separated the ‘haves’ from the have-nots.’

Meanwhile, in Europe, tattooing was viewed as exotic and scandalous. During the Victorian Era, members of the upper classes would sometimes get tattoos in locations where they could be concealed, thereby skirting the line or risque behavior.

In 1862, the Prince of Wales paid a visit to Jerusalem, where he got a cross tattoo. This began to turn tattooing into a fashion statement, and in Britain, the first tattoo shop was opened by Sutherland McDonald in 1894.

Despite growing popularity in parts of Europe, it was still generally frowned upon by American aristocracy. Still, some traveled overseas to get tattoos.  

Civil War Brings New Light to Tattooing

The Civil War in the United States lasted from 1861 to 1865. During that time, it was common for soldiers from both sides of the conflict to get tattoos. Most of the tattoos were simple designs, usually military insignia or the names of loved ones. These tattoos became a way for their bodies to be identified in the event of their death.

During this time, an influential figure was Martin Hildebrant, a sailor who had picked up the art of tattooing somewhere during his journeys. His earliest recorded work was in 1846, and once the Civil War broke out, he became a well-known figure. After the war, in 1870, he established the first tattoo shop in New York City in Lower Manhattan.

Post War Popularity

After the Civil War, tattooing became even more popular with the lower classes. It was a particularly common practice among sailors, and soldiers returned from the war and outcasts. Soldiers often tattooed their bodies with symbols of victory.

In 1891, Samuel O’Reilly was issued a patent for the first electric tattoo machine. He learned about tattooing while he was a sailor and opened his tattoo shop in 1888. His invention is the precursor to what tattoo artists use today. His tattoo machine made it easier to create consistent lines and sped up the entire process.

Women and Tattoos

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people tattooed from head to toe became popular attractions. Tattooed women, in particular, were often featured in freak shows, drawing large crowds.

Nora Hildebrant, the daughter of Martin Hildebrant, was the first female attraction to gain fame on the freak show circuit with a recorded contract in 1882. She was tattooed all over her body and told an elaborate story at her shows about how Sitting Bull and his tribe kidnapped her and her father. Sitting Bull offered to spare their lives if her father tattooed her from head to toe.

Nora Hildebrant

Nora’s story was fake, but it drew a large crowd nonetheless. Several women at the time agreed to be tattooed head to foot as freak show work was one of the few ways a woman could support herself financially. In some ways, this practice was an early way for women to take control of their bodies and became a form of liberation.

First Woman’s Tattoo Shop

The first tattoo shop run by a woman was established by Mildred Hull. After working the freak show circuit, Mildred had saved enough money to rent out her own shop in the back of a barbershop in the early 1900s. She was known as the “Queen of the Bowery.”

Tattoos In the 20th Century

In the 1900s, tattooing slowly evolved in popularity. During the roaring ‘20s, women would often have their eyebrows tattooed, as well as contoured lips and tinted cheeks. In the ‘30s, the creation of the social security number prompted some to get the number tattooed to remember it.

In the 1940s, a style of tattooing known as American Traditional was created by Norman Keith Collins, also known as Sailor Jerry. This style features bold lines and bright colors and is still popular today.

Norman Keith Collins, also known as Sailor Jerry

After World War II, tattoos became a symbol of manliness in the 1950s. Many men returning from the war had tattoos, and the Marlboro Man was shown in advertisements with one. Still, it wasn’t until the 70s and the counterculture movement, when tattoos really began to gain popularity and become a part of mainstream culture.

Normalization of Tattoos

During the 1980s, tattoos became a part of rock and roll culture, which bled into the 90s, where they began to be commonplace. By the time the 21st Century rolled around, tattoos had begun to be seen as a form of art and an accepted means of expression. Shows like Ink Masters and magazines like Inked have made tattoos widely acceptable.

Tattoos As An Art Form

Today, you can find tattoo shops all over the world, in big cities and small towns. Tattooing has become a respected art form, and personal artistry is celebrated. You can now get a tattoo and not worry about being barred from getting a normal job. 

For some, the perception of being inked still has a ways to go, but at least it’s okay to wear ink with pride these days.