Guest Blog: Still Not Just for Sailors Anymore...
Guest Blog by Dr. Matt Lodder *
As an opening line for an article in a popular newspaper about tattoos, the suggestion that "tattoos are not just for sailors anymore" is a familiar one. We saw it last month in an article in The Guardian called "The Rise and Rise of the Tattoo", whose subheading read "Just why has the art form of sailors, bikers and assorted deviants become mainstream?".
And just last week, an article in the Astbury Park Press declared that although "Traditionally viewed by Americans as the crude art of roughnecks or drunken sailors, tattooing has turned a corner, moving toward acceptance as legitimate art".
Indeed, it often feels as if the same sentiment graces every article about tattooing in the mainstream press: Tattooing, we've been told again and again recently, is coming of age - finally coming out of the murky shadows of the deviant underworld to leave its mark on the most well-heeled. Tattoos are now to be seen on catwalks, on trading floors and around the chicest tables.
The hacks who churn out these stories might be surprised to learn, then, that the popular media has been reporting the arrival of tattooing in high society for nearly one hundred years.
In his 1933 book, "Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art", Albert Parry reports that the onset of the Great Depression hit tattooists hard, as their usual clients - lawyers and bankers - were hard-up, unable to afford the highest rates for large tattoos. An even earlier article, from Tatler Magazine (the periodical of the British upper classes) in 1905, reports:
"The tattoing [sic] craze which first broke out in America has now come to this country, where its chief exponent is Mr. Alfred South of Cockspur Street. During his career Mr. South has operated on upwards of 15,000 persons, including about 900 English women, the designs in a great number of cases being of a most peculiar description. There are some instances where ladies have had the inscriptions on their wedding rings tattooed on their fingers beneath the ring. Ladies who like to keep pace with the times may be adorned with the illustrations of motor cars." (26th November 1905, p. 311)
There's simply no truth to the common tale that tattooing has always and forever been the domain of the seedy, the deviant and the marginalised in the West, though the tale is a persistent one. It pervades even the few serious academic histories of tattooing in the West, all of whom who almost universally agree that prior to about 1965, tattooing was less of an art form than some kind of ritual practiced by easily-identifiable groups of the underclass. The 1970s onwards are referred to in these texts as "The Tattoo Renaissance", as if the period before had been a dark age.
Recently, a colleague of mine passed me a fantastic article she stumbled across in the course of some archival research. Titled "Modern Fashions in Tattooing", it's from Vanity Fair, dated January 1926 (pp 43, 110). In its opening paragraph, the author confidently exclaims the; very same sentiment we saw only last month in The Guardian:
"Tattooing has passed from the savage to the sailor, from the sailor to the landsman. It has since percolated through the entire social stratum; tattooing has received its credentials, and may now be found beneath many a tailored shirt."
Even by 1926, magazines were announcing to their readers that tattoos were now popular amongst people like them. And these were not small flash designs either - the article reports large chest pieces, backpieces and designs artistically rendered to the desires of each individual client. It talks about re-works and cover-ups, and tattooing kings and queens. The article even mentions an old-salt tattoo artist called Professor Sharkey, bemoaning the good old days when tattooing was "art for art's sake" and not some modern fad. "It's too bad to have to tattoo diving-girls and Venus rising from the sea when you have it in you to do things like these," he says, gesturing at his collection of rare prints.
Tattooists, it seems, like tabloid journalists, have always stuck to the script.
* Dr Matt Lodder recently completed his PhD thesis in art history at the University of Reading. His research applies art-historical and art-theoretical methodologies to tattooing and other forms of body art. For more about his research, click here. Matt is on Twitter and can be contacted directly via mattlodder at hotmail dotcom.