The rough and smooth of tattoos

Studios offering tattoos are mushrooming today, but there’s a long tradition behind decorating our bodies, says Robert Hume.

Adam Levine sported his at the recent Super Bowl; while Justin Bieber claims his took “over a hundred hours of hard work”. Miley Cyrus is swarming in tiny ones; and Lady Gaga calls hers “Little Monsters.”

Even Dame Judi Dench has one: she got it on her 81st birthday.

When they arrived in Europe – relatively late on – the rich paid for the odd discrete tattoo; in Victorian times an Irish-American revolutionised how they were made. Once you only saw sailors with them; now they’re all the rage.

The Association of Body Modification Artists in Ireland (ABMAI) estimates there are around 1,000 tattoo parlours in the country, compared with about 20 of them two decades ago. 

In Cork City centre alone you can ink up in at least ten studios: from Tattoo Zoo in South Main Street, which claims to be the oldest, to the wonderfully named Inkoholiks in Tuckey Street.

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Early etching

Having a tattoo is “one of the longest sustained trends in history”, writes art historian Dr Matt Lodder.

Ötzi the Iceman, the 5,300 year-old mummy discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991, has 61 tattoos: on his chest, lower back, arm and leg joints – horizontal and vertical lines probably made by puncturing the skin and rubbing in charcoal. 

Simply adornment; or places marked for acupuncture? Researchers disagree.

Rich women in Ancient Egypt marked their stomachs with a series of dots, possibly to protect themselves during pregnancy.

Roman Emperor Constantine banned tattoos on the face. As Man had been created in the image of God, to defile the face was disrespectful.

In Japan branding the forehead with a tattoo was once used as a punishment. 

It replaced a much harsher one – limb amputation. 

Each region had its special symbol, so people knew where the crime had been committed.

Painted pilgrims

During the 17th century wealthy European men travelled to the Holy Land and returned with tattoos. 

The Razzouk family of Jerusalem inked pilgrims for generations. 

Designs were mostly religious, such as crosses, the Pieta, or St George slaying the dragon.

“Painted Prince”

In 1691, sailor William Dampher brought to London a heavily tattooed Polynesian named Prince Giolo. He was put on public display.

Captain James Cook returned from an expedition to Tahiti and New Zealand in 1769 with tales of the natives’ elaborate body art. 

He described tattooing buttocks as “a painful operation, performed but once in their lifetimes.”

Soon, the upper classes were getting tattoos in “unobtrusive” places.

A tattoo artist, who opened a shop at the Turkish baths in Jermyn Street in the fashionable West End of London during the 1880s, managed to make a good living.

Irish American transforms tattooing

Originally, each skin puncture was done individually by hand. 

That was what Irish-American Samuel O’Reilly did at his tattoo studio in Chinatown, New York City.

But “Professor O’Reilly” felt sure there was a better way. 

Thomas Edison had been tinkering with pens connected to electric motors.

O’Reilly applied the idea to tattoo pens, and in 1891 patented the first electric tattooing machine, which was faster, more precise, and caused less bleeding.

“O’Reilly was swamped with orders and made a small fortune within a few years”, says Steve Gilbert (Tattoo History: A Source Book).

Now that ordinary people could afford tattoos, the rich did not want to know.


Sleazy underworld

By 1900, tattooists were “scratching” away in the seedier parts of town, or by the docks. Tattooing had fallen into disrepute.

Heavily tattooed people were seen travelling with circuses and “freak shows”.

“People with tattoos who are not in prison are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats” claimed architect Adolf Loos.

Maude Wagner, the tattooed circus woman, born 1877.
Maude Wagner, the tattooed circus woman, born 1877.

Booming business – again

Today, practically every parade of shops has a tattoo parlour. You can select a “flash” design from the wall, or bring along your own. 

Go for a little “dot work”, or a full “body suit”.

But the recent proliferation of shops has also caused concern. 

The Department of Health warns that tattooing can be “an extremely hazardous practice”, risking the spread of viruses through dirty needles.

Once regulated and inspected, yesterday’s “scratchers” might become “fine artists” in our inked society.

And when parlours peak, and the fad passes, there’ll still be plenty of work – for tattoo removal studios!

Getting bad marks

Are you sure about that?

These symbols look exotic... But the top character is upside down, and the bottom ones mean “blithering idiot”.

The customer was told: “The symbols come from the Five Phase Cycle of Traditional Chinese Medicine and depict wood, fire, earth, metal, and water…”

Unfortunately, the character (ho) is actually Japanese, and means “whore”.

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