Guest Blog: A Little Bit of History Repeating Itself
Today, we have another wonderful installment from Paul Roe of Britishink for you tattoo history buffs!
By Paul Roe:
Now as I sit down to write this, that Shirley Bassey song just kept popping in to my head. Tattooing, like most things human, has been re-invented many, many times.
What is "Old School"? This question arose from a discussion on the way historic tattooing is presented in an exhibition setting. Some learned institutions are displaying comic book portrayals of anything tattoo related, which only perpetuates the myths, usually the bad ones, and ignores the rich social context and cultural significance of the art.
Generally, the stereotype is a grubby man in a one room shop, cigarette butt in mouth; this was the case in most major metropolitan cities -- and here's the key -- after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. This is the common perception of "Old School" tattooing that most people have today. The hardships and honest sweat of the working class man, purveyor to the working class around him, scraping a living from his street front shop. Bleak? Definitely.
The worn and weathered face of Charlie Wagner personifies the "Old School" so I'll use him as an example. He lost his life's savings in the crash -- about $11, 000 in 1929 -- equivalent to about $150,000 today. That tidy sum had been built up over a period of time starting as the apprentice to Samuel O'Reilly, the inventor of the electric tattooing machine. O'Reilly died in 1908, and by this point, Wagner had taken over the shop. So let's go back a little further to get an idea of what Mr. Wagner had as a working environment and mentor before America got broke.
Tattooing has always been a cross-class activity; in the vast majority of indigenous tattooing, the hierarchy of the group carries the most and best tattoos. Westerners spread the practice on board ships and the hand poked tattoos of ocean crossings took a great deal of time to complete. Some of those sailors settled in port towns to tattoo by hand primarily serving the military of that port.
Let's look at NYC before Wagner...
Martin Hildebrandt, a German immigrant, settled in New York City in 1846 and did great trade up to and through the Civil War, crossing the line to tattoo both Yankees and Confederates, establishing himself as the tattooist in NYC. In 1875, Samuel O'Reilly opened his Chatham Square location and became Hildebrandt's competition. Remember at this point all tattooing was done by hand and a growing interest was stirring in the society class of New York as wealthy British and Europeans returned from India and Japan with handmade body decorations as souvenirs of their travels, men and women alike. European aristocracy had embraced tattooing for decades and the news was spreading west.
The 1870's New York tattoo craze was on. And of course with each dinner party, each ball, each of those tattooed aristocrats needed to out-do their peers with the delicacy of their tattoo work, the price was often bragging rights too (and one carefully cultivated among the tattooists). But this was an age of revolution -- every process that could be mechanized was being mechanized. O'Reilly sped up the process a hundred fold with his rotary machine, which meant more tattoos could be done, and bags of cash could be made.
Marketing himself directly at the wealthy O'Reilly followed the names of Sutherland MacDonald (London) and Hori Chyu (Yokohama) as the go to tattooist on this side of the Atlantic, and by the time Charles Wagner joined him in the 1890s, O'Reilly ran quite a fine establishment. His Japanese assistants not only served tea to the clients but also would be sent uptown to apply a tattoo in the residence of a wealthy patron. This cost extra I'm sure.
The Japanese studio layout was emulated too, the first room you entered had couches and pillowed nooks to sit and take your tea, the second room contained the apprentices, both Japanese and American in O'Reillys case, and this is where Wagner started. The third room was the masters studio and if you had enough money and influence you got tattooed there. This layout and hierarchy is very similar to the western "atelier". The atmosphere would have to be pleasant for the upper class customers, a surrounding they would feel comfortable in with its damask cushions and elegant artwork strewn walls.
On January 30th, 1880, the New York Times explained "...that the noble savage has become the newfangled ideal...and hence to be tattooed is to put one's self in sympathy with Nature and to protest the sickly conventionalities of civilization..."
The poet Andrew Lang, in his 1884 Rhymes a la Mode proclaimed a high-caste person when tattooed was really an Art's Martyr:
"...The china on the shelf is very fair to view,So with the newspapers, the society balls and dinners, artists and statesmen alike buzzing with the tattoo fad from Europe, American tattooing flourished. High society names of the day wore tattoos from O'Reilly's establishment which could well have been tattooed by his assistant Wagner; among them Mrs. George Cornwallis West boasting a delicate snake around her left wrist, which she covered during the day with a matched gold bracelet, and Mrs. Clara Ward who's daytime dresses all had a long right sleeve and a short left sleeve but her evening dresses were constructed in reverse to reveal a snake circling her right shoulder and a butterfly.
The fashion waxed and waned each few years and those tattooists who endured were those who actively targeted their audience directly. In a 1905 publicity photo of Wagner, he's seen wearing a top hat and large fresh flower in his lapel, interestingly enough holding an O'Reilly machine when he had patented his own device (a side by side twin coil machine) only the year before.
But with the death of O'Reilly the socialites slowly stopped visiting Chatham Square as the fashions were changing and high society, in both Europe and the US, shunned the bold lines and "the American style" even straying from the patronage of Sutherland MacDonald in search of finer lines and more delicate work at the hands of Japanese masters such as Hori Chyu of Yokohama. This trend had started in the late 1890s, and by 1900, a New York millionaire had offered Hori Chyu an establishment in NYC at the annual salary of $12,000 (about $180,000 today). Sadly this arrangement never came to fruition.
The Bowery "fun zone" with its dime museums and amusements, displays of tattooed men and women and of course tattoo shops was falling out of vogue with the rich but not the average American. The tattooed men and women of the sideshow and circus were bread and butter for the tattooists of the day but sideshow wages were dropping and their novelty with the public wearing off. Just around the corner was the First World War and a new batch of tattoo hungry customers would descend upon the port city of New York...the military.
The latest and greatest development in the tattoo business was flash -- the stock images displayed usually on the walls and ready to be tattooed. These images had been around a long time, each individual artist making their own travel books and sketches but the wholesale distribution of pre-drawn flash really took off during WWI. The name "flash" is from the carnival days - a canvas roll of brightly colored images hanging outside the tattooist tent - to "flash" and catch the eye of the passing customer. Regimental badges, patriotic eagles and sweetheart remembrances are still with us as standard flash today.
Prior to about 1900 all the aristocratic atelier tattooing was custom drawn, made once and not repeated, in fact the derogatory term "Jagger" (still in use on the Bowery until the mid-thirties) meant someone who uses stencils and does not draw the tattoo on the body or even tattoo the image without the use of guide lines. Jagger is from the Scottish slang "to jab wildly". The act of replication was frowned upon by the great names but proved to be the saving grace for the industry as electric tattooing equipment had been for sale through various gentlemen's magazines and publications and now sheets of designs could be purchased too.
Lew the Jew tattooed in NYC from the early 1900s and is the person most responsible for the proliferation of tattoo flash. A former wallpaper designer, he returned home from the Spanish American war tattooed and entranced by the tattoo business. His basic designs are those that set the western traditional style and are still seen today on the walls of shops across the world.
Harry Lawson took a different approach. His three room studio in Los Angeles had examples of tattoos framed on every wall -- not flash painted on paper or card but preserved human skin, contracted from people he had met, bribed from the local coroner's office and otherwise obtained by unknown methods. His workspace contained a large desk with medical books and implements giving him a learned air. Mr. Lawson disappeared in 1920 and had advertised he was retiring in 1919, selling his entire operation and giving it up. He resurfaced on the Pike twenty years later. The stories of the high ranked officials and military officers he had tattooed were told until his death in 1950.
So "Old School" should be a term used lightly.
In my humble opinion it correctly describes any tattooing pre-electric device, which would make the great names of O'Reilly, MacDonald, Burchett and Wagner..."New School"!
The image of the grubby man sitting outside his one room street front shop, hungry and, surly with it, are what we consider to be right for the Old School label. But as with most of the industrial revolution we remember the grit, grime and soot, the appalling sanitary conditions of the very end of this historic period. We forget the lavish interiors, the splendor of presentation, the exotic visual influences from Asia and India and the titled men and women of leisure who were old or new money and would spend it to out-spend their peers as a kind of competition of worth, capitalized on by the tattooists of the day.
So as we begin 2013, we see that it's not too dissimilar from 1913 in terms of tattooing. There are excellent custom tattoo studios out there producing quality work on a small scale and there are street shops banging out flash all day long. Each has its market as history repeats itself.
That was the Golden Age of tattooing as this is the Golden Age of tattooing.
At your service,
Tattoodles Online Inc.
508 H St. NE
Washington DC 20002