New-York Historical Society

A Short, Incomplete History of American Traditional Tattooing

This post is written by Joe Festa, Print Room Reference Assistant

As my colleague Ted pointed out in his previous blog post, the electric tattoo machine revolutionized tattooing at the end of the 19th century. However, it wasn’t just electric current that propelled the industry; another factor can be attributed to the circulation of what’s called “flash” today: sheets of pre-drawn designs displayed in a portfolio, or more commonly, on the walls of tattoo shops.

According to Albert Parry’s book Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art, published in 1933 by Simon and Schuster, tattooists of the time were so inundated with requests that it was difficult for them to keep up with the demand for new designs. But the exchange of flash during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which were largely distributed with other supplies through mail order catalogs, helped artists keep up with the growing marketplace.

Details from tattoo sketchbook, unknown artist. Album File, PR2.451

The style that emerged during this turning point can be defined by its use of bold, black outlines and a limited color palette. It’s also defined by specific imagery – patriotic symbols like eagles, the American flag, or male oriented pictures of girl-heads and pin-ups – which can be attributed to the number of sailors who favored this act of body adornment. Designs were intentionally kept simple in an effort to further increase the speed of application and enable an artist to accommodate more clients.

Page from Percy Waters' mail-order catalog. Bella Landauer Collection of Business Ephemera, PR31

Of the many masters who helped fill the market gap, Parry credits New York City tattooer Lew “the Jew” Alberts as an early promoter and peddler of these new sheets of flash. Michigan native Percy Waters had a strong mail order business and was also influential. And according to Parry, he was also well known for his acrimonious criticism of his competitor’s practices and standards.

The author quotes from a leaflet Waters mailed that warns of “fly-by-nighters” who prey on inexperienced buyers, plagiarize literature, and sell ill-executed designs, such as the Statue of Liberty raising her left arm, or steamboats with flags that wave north while clouds of smoke float south. Waters concludes frankly with: “Such crap as this could not be classed with tattooing machines and designs made by a skillful mechanic and artist of long reputation.”

In some ways, Waters’ sentiment still rings true today – both inside and outside the tattoo industry. And while tattooing has become less of a “strange art” in recent years, the American style has become a time-honored tradition, and is still celebrated and referenced in countless studios across the country.

Trade Card, Percy Waters. Bella Landauer Collection of Business Ephemera, PR31

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