THE HISTORY OF TATTOOING

Although the art of tattooing can be traced back to the beginning of time, modern electric tattooing was still in its infancy when Prince Vallar began his career. In the late 1800's the art of tattooing was being practiced by a handful of professionals in the UK. The advent of the electric tattooing machine saw a huge influx of persons entering the profession.

Around 1889 the first reports of electric tattooing began to emerge from America. Samuel O'Reilly had patented the Electric Tattoo Machine (an early adaptation of the Thomas Edison Pen) in the USA and similar versions of this invention were submitted to the UK patent office in the following years by British tattooers. Sutherland MacDonald, Tom Riley and Alfred South all applied for patents for variations on these early prototypes and many others were developing their own machines.

By early 1900's there were several tattoo artists in Britain that had adopted electric tattooing. The commercial opportunities were obvious. Quicker operating times meant more customers for the tattoo artist, which equaled more money.

Sutherland MacDonald, Alfred South, George Burchett, Tom Riley, Joe Kitteridge, William Thomas, Jack Bowman., Leopold Heath, Jim Wilson, Tom Londsdale, Jemmy Green, Edward Taylor, William McGrath, Henri Swiftt, W.H.C Ryan, Prince Vallar, Ted Frisco, Joe Kilbride, Robert Leckie, Charles Smith, James Shephard and  Fred Phillips were among the professionals earning a living from the art.

It's well documented that tattooing enjoyed an increased period of popularity when word got out among Royal circles that King George V had been tattooed in foreign lands. This, in turn, led to most of the Royal Household and it's Courtiers trying to emulate the Sovereign and to seek out a suitable practitioner of this secretive ancient art nearer to home. Celebrated Tattooists such as MacDonald, South, Riley and Burchett were already established in London and in turn made a name for themselves as 'Society tattooists'.

However, there was another undocumented band of tattooers who offered their services, not to Kings, Queens and noblemen, these artists tattooed the common man..the dockers, soldiers, sailors, factory workers and maids. They built their reputations in the seaports, dock areas and tattooed in the newly emerging entertainment attraction that was sweeping the nation.

The popularity of the Waxworks, Circuses, Variety Shows, Fairground Amusements and Exhibitions had began in Britain around 1895. The promoters of these shows realised that electric tattooing was an exciting, new phenomenon that could draw crowds. They were desperate to 'land' either a heavily tattooed lady or tattooed couple. A bigger catch would be to sign a long contract with a tattooed couple where one of them could actually apply tattoos using the modern electric method. Adverts were placed in The Era Newspaper offering a share of profits or a guaranteed wage for anyone who had this particular skill or attribute. Looking through the records that cover that period of time there were NOT enough practicing tattoo artists to fill all the available advertised positions.

There was a shortage of tattooists in Britain!

This unusual situation led to the emergence of a whole cast of self titled 'Professors'. They dominated the tattoo scene for the next 20 years until Cinema replaced the popularity of the Waxworks, Circuses and Zoos around 1915. Professors' Laurence, Ivory, Beumont, Cosgrove, Williams, Balerno, LLoyd, Thomas, MacKinley, Whittingham and Norton were among the many who came into the tattoo trade at this period. Some had first witnessed tattooing while serving in the Military in the Boer War, or during a spell at sea in a far off foreign port. Some entered tattooing from a background gained working previously as sign writers, commercial artists or a similar artistic field.

These new tattooers were mostly itinerant travellers that wandered from venue to venue, working for a few months in each location before moving onto the next 'big thing'  Some would eventually open tattooing parlours that were situated near seaports, military bases or the centre of a large British city. This would allow them to settle down in one place, get married and raise a family. They could continue to make a living from the art and not have to keep chasing a shilling. Others simply vanished along with the demise of the waxworks.

In the first 20 years of electric tattooing in Britain from 1895 until 1915 there were at least 60 documented traceable tattooists that worked professionally in England, Wales and Scotland. There were also a few that worked in Ireland but most were just visiting the country, working as tattooists with fairs and circus shows.

When Cinema replaced the Variety and Waxwork shows in 1915, tattooing was beginning to suffer a drop in its popularity. The High Society fascination with tattooing was over. Some tattoo artists had done really well over the past 20 years and thought they'd witnessed the best years that the profession had to offer. However, the outbreak of WW1 saw an unprecedented demand for tattooing once more as military men from all the Services were marked with regimental crests, sweethearts names and various ships, hearts and anchors. Now there was an influx of new tattooers that were entering the profession.

From 1915 until 1940 there were around 30 - 40 recorded tattooists working in the the United Kingdom.

The years 0f WW2 (1939-1945) saw another boost for tattooing among the military and civilian population. Patriotic tattoos were the order of the day. Flags, military crests, sweethearts names and portraits. Pictures of public figures and images of fully rigged sailing ships were inked onto leaving or returning servicemen. Foreign Allied troops were stationed in Britain and they boosted the potential customer base. Most tattoo shops were open 7 days a week and the demand was once again incredible. Some tattooists were called-up for active service and used this opportunity to boost their pay-packet by taking a mobile kit with them to their designated post. War was certainly good for tattooing!

During the next 3 decades of the 1950's/60.s and 70's tattooing did not suffer any substantial drop in it's popularity. Some tattooists now only worked part-time in the business as it was difficult to sustain a year-round living after those heady days of the second world war. Tattooing had now reverted to being a mostly civilian pursuit and the loss of the servicemen's custom was evident. The various fashionable 'movements' of each era embraced tattooing for it's own cause. Rockers, Mods, Hippies, Punks, Skinheads and Football fans all had their role in tattooing popularity during this time.

The 1980's were a particularly low period for the art. The AIDS epidemic was sweeping it's way around the world and, as a result of over zealous newspaper headlines and government warnings, the general public was warned against visiting backstreet or untrained tattooists who were operating without the correct knowledge of sterilisation and hygiene. New regulations were introduced such as Autoclave sterilisation, disposable gloves and the introduction of fresh ink for each new client. Many of the professional tattooists embraced the new rules and welcomed the new registration scheme that had been introduced, some older tattooers decided that they'd had enough and retired from the trade.

In the mid-1980's in Scotland there were around 10 studios operating on a full-time basis. In 2019 there are over 130!  In England and Wales there were around 50. Ireland did not really fully embrace tattooing (Johnny Eagle was tattooing in Dublin, Johnny Venus in Belfast and Sailor Bill was tattooing in Coleraine) until the early 1990's when a few studios opened up in the major cities of Dublin, Limerick, Cork and Belfast. The Tattoo world was originally a small community where everyone knew of each other. It was not always harmonious (there had been fighting among tattooists since MacDonald, Riley and South began in the late 1890's) but in general everyone got along okay as long as boundaries were respected and due's had been paid in the traditional sense.

It was the customers that created the tattooing network in those days. They carried the living artwork of their tattooist around with them wherever they went on their travels. Like a business card, each tattoo worn by the customer carried all the tattoo artists traits, styles and artwork for the next tattooist to view, admire, critique and copy/adapt for themselves. This was the only real way for tattooists to see what was 'trending' long before the invention of twitter!  This was the 'internet and social media' of the times!  Most tattoo artists became experts at spotting and identifying another tattooists particular style, design or colouring before the customer could announce who'd previously tattooed them.

A Prince Vallar tattoo could be instantly recognised in a dusty Egyptian market and a Terry Wrigley design could be spotted from 30 feet across a badly lit Singapore bar room.

The small worldwide network of tattooists was invisibly connected by these wandering, walking art canvases. It was sometimes the only platform that tattooists had available to them to see what others were doing.

Tattoo Magazines.

There were no publicly available tattoo magazines in Britain until the late 1980s. The first available magazine to feature tattooing regularly was Easyrider, an American Biker lifestyle magazine that was on general sale in the UK. This magazine sometimes had tattoo designs or photos about tattooing. Others followed and some UK biker magazines began featuring tattooing in them as regular features. They also carried adverts for tattooing supply companies. This was the dawn of tattooing becoming more accessible to the general public.... a long time before the internet.

Tattoo Supply Companies

There have always been suppliers of tattoo equipment. The demand for equipment began when electric tattooing was introduced in the 1890's. Lots of tattoo artists supplemented their incomes by selling machines, needles, colours and designs to anyone who wanted to purchase it. British tattoo suppliers like Chas. Davis and Joe Hartley were among the early suppliers of tattoo equipment and they competed directly with the likes of Milton Zeis, Nick Piccaro and Charlie Wagner from the USA who were all known to operate mail-order supply businesses. A would-be tattooer could now have 2 different routes into the profession. He could either approach an established tattooist, purchase the necessary equipment and pay the artist for some tuition or he could send away for the equipment and get a whole business delivered in a box! It would even come with an instruction booklet on how to carry out the procedure. Designs and stencils were also supplied, making the need for natural drawing talent almost a secondary requirement.

Tattoo Conventions

The very first organised tattoo conventions took place in the mid 1980s and were opened to the general public for the first time. Other tattoo gatherings had been previously been organised but they were generally held behind closed doors (Bristol Tattoo Club/Jeff Baker Old Timers Bashes etc) and were open to professional tattoo artists only and attendance was strictly by invitation only. The first big public conventions witnessed overseas tattooists attending from every corner of the world. For many this would be the first time they could meet with other artists and share ideas and thoughts. It was considered a good thing and it definitely put tattooing back into the mainstream media under a good spotlight for the first time in many years.

Television

Tattooing is much more popular now due to the various television programmes being broadcast about the art. Miami/LA/London Ink and lots of others have been formatted around the tattooists trade. Today's sporting stars and many celebrities have tattoos that are visible and commented on in social media and the press. Major advertising campaigns are now structured around tattoo images and lots of commercial business enterprises have sprung up featuring tattooing on Clothing and Alcohol.  Before 1990 it was extremely rare for a British sporting figure to have a tattoo. Think back to the professional footballers of Glasgow Celtic or Rangers? Do you remember Charlie Nicholas, Jimmy Johnstone, Billy MacNeill or John Greg, Tam Forsyth or Derek Johnstone showing any ink? Pop stars? Apart from Susi Quatro and Ozzy Osbourne I can't think of many more having visible tattoos.

The Internet

The closely guarded secrets, the knowledge and mystique, the suppliers addresses, and everything else is now available on the internet for everyone to see. The tattoo shows have made it look far too easy. You can now even go to a tattoo school and learn everything in 14 days!  There are 10 times more tattooists working nowadays than there were at the start of this journey. What would Smith, Norton and Kitteridge think of this?

There is however an upside to all of this exposure. The tattoo art being produced today is far superior to the work that some of the early electric tattooists were capable of doing with their basic equipment. Today's colours, needles, hygiene and designs have evolved for the better of tattooing. There has also been a big influx of new, young talented artists who are keen to take the art to a new level coming into the tattoo world. With the new technology available at their disposal the world is their oyster.

These new tattoo artists can create the most stunning portraits and images and they have instant access to computers and the internet to aid them in the design process. Whether these fine detailed, pastel coloured, pneumatically applied tattoos will still look good in 30 years time is another subject for another day.

Prince Vallar only had a pencil, paper and his natural hand-drawing skills to produce a rough sketch for a potential client. He perfected single needle tattooing (before it was popular) and only had 3 colours to work from. His work is still visible on human skin 70 years later.

I don't think he ever watched a single episode of Tattoo Fixers!