Skin Art, a Brief History

elizname2smallLove them?  Hate them?  Want one?  Have one?  Nobody seems to be neutral about tattoos.  But there’s one thing we can all agree on.  Tattoos have been around since the beginning of human history, and they aren’t going away anytime soon. 

The word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian word “tatau” which means to mark something.  The history of tattoos is as diverse as the people who wear them.  The reasons for having a tattoo are just as varied.  A tattoo can be a rite of passage, a sign of belonging to a clan or group, a status symbol, a token of bravery, a mark of beauty, uniqueness or self expression.  Because this site is about the West, I’ll confine the rest of this post to the Western World. 


tattoo5-floridaTattooing was widespread among Native American tribes.  For example, the Sioux believed that after death the spirit of a warrior mounts a horse and begins the journey to the afterlife.  On the way he meets an old woman who demands to see his tattoos.  If he has none, she turns him back to wander the world as a ghost. 



The usual method of tattooing involved piercing or cutting the skin with a sharp object, rubbing colored pigment into the wounds and letting them heal.  There were many variations on this method.  Even today’s techniques use the same principle.  Tattooing was brought to Europe in the early 1800s by sailors who’d discovered it in the South Pacific.  Over time it became a fad among the aristocracy.  Even members of the British royal family sported tattoos.  Inevitably, the practice of tattooing spread to America.  The first permanent tattoo shop in New York City was set up in 1846.  Most of the customers were military servicemen, and the tattoos tended to be patriotic or romantic in nature, especially with the onset of the civil war. 

tattoo-1-patrioticGetting a tattoo wasn’t for the fainthearted.  The needles were attached to a wooden handle.  The tattoo artist dipped the needles in ink and moved his hand up and down rhythmically, puncturing the skin two or three times per second.  The technique required great dexterity and took years of practice to perfect.  Even for the best artists, the process was painfully slow. 

After Samuel O’Reilly invented the electric tattoo needle in 1891, tattooing became easier, cheaper and more common.  More women began getting tattoos.  A few people had their entire bodies covered with skin art—a guarantee of employment in traveling side shows.  In the American West, most tattooing would have been done in the larger cities.  A cowboy with a tattoo would probably have either been in the military or in prison, where inmates tattooed each other, often badly. 

In today’s society, tattoos are more popular than at any time in American history.  With academically tattoo-2-womantrained artists entering the profession, tattooing can rise to the level of fine art.  These two examples were done by Teresa, an artist working in Santa Cruz, CA.  She has a degree in art and a growing reputation as a painter.  She also happens to be my daughter, and, yes, I have a sample of her early work, a little butterfly on my back.  I wear it proudly.  For me, it’s a connection to someone I love. 

tattoo-3-butterfliesWhat’s your take on tattoos?  I’m braced for some strong opinions.  Let’s have some fun with this. 



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35 thoughts on “Skin Art, a Brief History”

  1. Hi Elizabeth, what interesting information! I am a regular blood donor (Five-gallon club) which precludes piercings or tats, but my daughter has several dainty, tasteful ones that mostly can’t be seen. I do remember freaking a little when she called from HAIGHT-ASHBURY after getting her first one. Sheesh

    I wonder if those folks with full-on artwork will be regretful someday, e.g.when wrinkles set in LOL

    What’s my take? Hmmmmmm. I think I prefer subtlety LOL and it sounds painful. Most people don’t even like to get shots!

    Thanks again for the fun read 🙂

  2. Both my husband and I are a work in progress when it comes to tattoos. I only have 2. He on the other hand has approximately 15 and counting. For me, mine do not show unless I have on a tank top which just about never happens. Jr’s on the other hand can’t be covered up unless he wears long sleeves all the time. For us tattoos is a way of expressing ourselves. We don’t expect everyone to like them, but we hope people will not judge the book by it’s cover. Have a great day.

  3. Hey, we have tattoos coming out. I was half afraid readers would be outraged.
    Like you, Tanya, I prefer them subtle, as mine is. I bet your daughter’s are pretty on her.

    And I am smiling at your comment, Roberta. My daughter is in a class with your husband. Lots of them. I keep thinking I’ll have her enhance my butterfly one of these times. Strange–they’re expensive, they hurt, but there’s something about getting one. It’s a high.

  4. Im not outraged,but I hate them personally,2 of my 6 grown children have them,an other family memebers,my niece has a pooh on her butt!I told her one day when shes old an in the nursing home,that poor ole withered pooh will be hanging down to her knees,lol,she just rolled her eyes,back when I was growing up it was considered trashy an cheap to have one,so I cant get that out of my head,I see people paying for them unstead of buying clothes an food for their children,I guess that burns me up more,my sister just got one at age 55,she is NUTS!oh well to each his own,as long as they can afford it who am I to say,but I WONT be having any done

  5. Hi, Elizabeth! Fascinating blog. I love how you’re so open-minded!

    Put me on the Never a Tattoo side. They’re just so permanent and not always appropriate. We went to a wedding a few years back, and the bride had a big rose tattooed on her upper breast. Of course, she had a strapless dress, and there was that blob of dark peeking out above that pure white bodice. Ruined the pictures imo, but oh, well. 🙂

    Also, I think these young kids who are getting big bold tattoos need to think of their careers once they are out of college. I know for a fact employers find them unprofessional. Could impact getting a good job.

    That said, my daughter snuck away and got one in college. A small discreet cross that she had put on her lower back. I’m sure she had it a good long while before I happened to find it, and yeah, I freaked out at the time. But it’s easily hidden. Not a big deal anymore.

  6. I’m a blood donor like Tanya, but that’s not the main reason I don’t have a tatoo. I’m too squeamish to put up with the pain! 😀 Oh well, I’ll just have to enjoy the art on others.

  7. Good Morning all. AAHHH Tattoos. I’m 74 and was raised to believe that they were trashy, too. Only returning veterans had them. Well, my step-Grandson is an artist and he started doing tats. He got instruction and all the equipment and to practice….he got all his friends to give up an arm or body part for his practice. My daughter has ones on each arm (shoulder) and her friends have multiple ones. I didn’t care for this when they started, but they grow on you. My four granddaughters in Sacramento each have several. I guess it is ‘to each his own’type of thing. Art??

  8. I knew a lot of people would feel the way you do, Vickie. Love the image of the pooh hanging to her knees. And I certainly agree that people who pay for tattoos and leave their families in need are selfish.
    Thanks for your comment.

  9. My tattoo is on my lower back, too Pam. Only show it when I belly dance (which I haven’t done for a while). And I agree with the professional issue. My daughter refuses to tattoo faces and hands because it does cause problems with many jobs. Any other place can be covered with clothes. She says you can’t believe how many lawyers, doctors, etc. have tattoos that don’t show.
    I wasn’t happy when she got her first tattoo, but I’ve learned to choose my battles. Other things are so much more important.

  10. Getting a tattoo does hurt, Tracy. And the healing process is no fun either. I’m amazed that some people have them all over. They must have high pain thesholds.
    And I know what it’s like having a tattoo artist in the family, Mary J. You sound like the only holdout. Good for you, sticking to your guns. So far I’m the only member of the family go go under Teresa’s needle. I got mine when I was 50, old enough to have no regrets. And I love it.

  11. I know it’s not a big deal these days.
    My brother-in-law has a tattoo from his army days and it’s pretty cool.

    I was at a grocery store that I frequent and this very nice, very together looking lady who had checked my groceries out MANY TIMES over YEARS reached extra far for something and for the first time I saw she had a tattoo on her wrist, ivy wound around it or something. And I FELT my attitude about her shift.

    I’m not kidding. I was so aware of suddenly downscaling her income, her morals, her intelligence. I just felt it happen. I know she’s still the same nice lady she’s always been. Keep in mind I do not really know her. Have no knowledge of her personally, her name, her marital status, how much hard time she’s done. 🙂

    But the point is, it really made me aware that those tattoos do make an impression. I’m afraid it’s not a good one.

  12. Although I find some very attractive (usually on men – I know and I’m not usually like that). I’m just afraid what you like at one time in your life is not going to be so hot at another time. My oldest daughter called while on a high school graduation vacation with her girl friends and told me she got a tattoo and I about had a heart attack. Well it was one of those kind that last a few weeks lol. Both my daughters talked about it for years. Right before getting married my daughter did get a tattoo with her fiance – Love – on their hips so that was okay with me (not like I could do anything about it hahaha). He has a small one on his ankle and another one on his other hip. My youngest daughter is an artist so she scares me the most lol.

  13. I agree with you, Jeanne, that too many young people get tattoos they’ll regret having later. It is possible to get them removed with a laser, but the process is expensive and painful. There are new inks out there that respond better to laser treatment–still, getting a tattoo is not a decision to be taken lightly. I never would have thought of getting one except from my daughter. It was my way of telling her, “I love you, and I’m proud of what you do.”

  14. Elizabeth,

    This was such an interesting blog. I really enjoyed it. Especially the part about the Sioux and Native Americans getting tattoos. I want one of a dreamcatcher or sacred hoop. Where did you find the info about the Sioux I mean are there a website with this kind of info? Please let me know. My email is

    ALso, Elizabeth I guest on P&P from time to time and I love it I am wanting to do interviews on all the fillies I would post it on my website I have done Linda Broday and Karen Kay already please check it out and I will also put it on my blog and on Essential Writers web page

    Please let me know about the interview and where you got the info about the Sioux

    Walk in peace and harmony,


  15. Interesting history of tattoo, Elizabeth.

    As a nurse I see some very interesting tattoos in some very interesting places. I also have a daughter who has the most gorgeous rose on her wirst. We’re talking about 4 inches long. Sigh, she also has a japanese symbol on her back, a celtic knot on one shoulder and a star and triangle on the other…I’ve grown accoustomed to them.

  16. No, of course it hasn’t, Elizabeth. But I think that’s an important point. I know you. I know you’re smart and accomplished and a nice lady.

    But when it’s someone you DON’T know, like an applicant for a job, then those tattoos can really be sending the wrong message.


  17. I bet you could tell some stories, Suzanne.

    And yes, I understand growing accustomed to the tattoos. Underneath them, your daughter is the same person you love. It’s not worth making a fuss.
    Thanks for joining us today.

  18. Hi Elizabeth!

    I didn’t know this about tatoos and the Sioux — wow, I really learned something.

    I think tatoos are beautiful. I don’t have any myself — not because I don’t like them, but like jewelry, I just don’t wear that much ornament. I’m kinda small and so a little goes a long way. : )

  19. Hi Elizabeth,

    Great Blog Did not know this about the Sioux. Where do you find such wonderful info about the Sioux.

    Please email me and let me know if you would be interested in letting me interview you as I did Linda Broday and Karen Kay. I will put it on my website and some other places


  20. I was 60 when I got my first tatoo. Two small fighting hummingbirds on my left calf. A year later I got a hummingbird on my right upper arm.
    No regrets!

  21. I imagine you’re beautiful just as you are, Kay.

    For you and for Melinda, I got the information about the sioux from a very good site about the history of tattoos. I can only take their word that it’s true. I do know that early drawings of plains indians, such as the Mandan, show them as tattooed. Can’t remember the site address offhand, but you could probably find it by googling. Thanks for asking.

  22. I don’t think that I will ever have a tatoo but have no problem with those who do. both of my daughters have tatoos. Most are small and descreetly done. One has a rather large one with her wedding information in it and I pray that the marriage lasts forever. I also wonder what they will look like when they are old and wrinkly but I’m sure that I won’t have to see them as I shall be gone long before then!

  23. Great questions, Elizabeth! No tattoos here, but my oldest son has a few that are amazing. They really are art. I just wish the “art” wasn’t on his upper arms.

    Tattoos are a lot more common than they were awhile back. I’m not planning on getting one, but it’s fun to think about : ) I’d do it mostly to shock my kids!

  24. You sound like one wise lady, Connie. Smiling at your comment. Since my own tattoo is on my back where I can’t see it, I guess I won’t care what it looks like when I get old and wrinkly–I’ll be more concerned about the rest of me.

  25. Love the idea of you shocking your kids, Vickie, as well as your sensible attitude about your son’s tattoos.
    My grandchildren think my tattoo is cool. When my daughter visits, they bring her a ballpoint pen and she draws designs on them. But I’m hoping they won’t decide to get the real thing.

  26. “To each his (or her) own!”

    In my opinion, a small, unobtrusive tattoo is all
    well and good. It’s when one goes full ink, body-
    wise, that it becomes unappealing. DD2 has a small
    rose tattoo, which is not unattractive, but none
    for me, thank you very much!

    Pat Cochran

  27. Your daughter does lovely work. My son has 3 tattoos, one on his calf and one on each bicep. They are celtic and tribal. There are some very nice tattoos out there. There are also some pretty awful ones. The work on them is excellent, but the subject is less than attractive. My son got his first tattoo to irritate me and it didn’t work. It was tasteful and that was all I was concerned about (except he really couldn’t afford it). Don’t think I would get one. At my age, there really isn’t any point. The one thing most people should consider before getting one is, in 20 years will I want this on my body. Also, some men who had ships tattooed on their chests years ago, their ships have started to sink.

  28. Wise words, Pat. I wouldn’t want a huge tattoo either, but I’ve seen a lot of them. All that pain. All that money. “To each his/her own” says it all.

    Laughing at your sinking ships comment, Patricia. One thing my daughter enjoys doing is fixing people’s bad tattoos. She makes them into something totally different. Nice that you’re so accepting with your son’s tattoos. Thanks both of you for commenting.

  29. I will probably never have one I am afraid of the pain, not sure why because I handle pain really good all the surgeries I have had and very little pain meds. I would love to have Mickey mouse on my ankle but I don’t think it will ever happen hubby said if GOD wanted us to have them we would have been born with them he even feels that way about piercings not sure I agree and if I really wanted it I would get it but I think in 20 years will I want to look at that???
    My oldest daughter has a few a little more then a few but not down her arms but her ankles she has a mickey on one side for me and the other she has her god son , then another ankle she has an Eagle for my dad he passed away a couple years ago and on the other side she has a breast cancer ribbon for my Mom. I picked out her first one on her lower back I was afraid if I didn’t let her get it and pick it out she would end up with a huge one and several of them she seems to always ask before she gets one even now she has her own kids. I think that bothers her thinking what will the kids think about it all. Something to think about.

  30. I lived in the 1830’s to 1850’s timeframe in Northern Colorado, and what I remember of tattoos or body paint was mainly on indians, or men who wanted you to think they were indians. And I wouldn’t relate them to body art, really. They were crude and badly done, causing deep scarring. Some died from the process, even. FEW were the real artists that we see now. It wasn’t until much later that this became an art here.

    But that was just what I saw myself. I did get around in the western stated, I traveled a lot. As a man. As a woman, dressed as a man, seeing naked men was rather common. I did see them bathing, but never joined them. So seeing their skin was normal. I saw more scars than tattoos. Bullet wounds, knife wounds. I did my share of sewing men up after battles.

    Indians were more into painting themselves, from what I could see. Some did tattoos, but they were simple. Not detailed as they are now. Symbols of battles won. Symbols to give them good luck. That sort of thing.

    There was one man, who had a Maori tattoo on his legs and hips, but he was the exception to the rule, a sailor. He showed it to me, and it was as close to art as I’d ever seen. Black. No color. He said at one time, the man went too deep and nearly killed him. He was healed up when I saw it.

    Boy, was he muscular!!! That’s what I remember. BIG man. The kind you don’t want to meet in a fight. All muscle!!! He was impressive.


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