The art of getting inked: Tattooing then and now


Hannah Carley (She/Her) explores Britain’s past and present relationship with tattooing

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Image by Adrian Boustead

By Hannah Carley

I don’t have any tattoos. In fact, I only got my ears pierced for the first time a few months ago, on my twentieth birthday. Yet I must admit that I do have such a respect for the technique and artistry that goes into good tattooing. I see pictures of some of the complicated work that tattooers are able to pull off and it blows my mind how talented these artists are – to be able to craft often incredibly intricate and vibrant designs on the skin requires a level of expertise and creativity I simply do not possess (and if you ask for proof of that, I will not be showing you my bad artwork).

However, the traditional stereotypes of tattooing are not of artwork, meaning and skill, but of criminals, debauchery and youthful rebellion. People often associate the practice with teenagers looking to spite their elders or societal rebels, as something that a professional, a ‘higher’ member of society cannot partake in. Yet this is neither where the practice comes from, or a true reflection of the reasons for its current popularity. I set out to explore the origins and development of tattooing in the UK, to peel back the layers on a well-known but not well-understood art.

Tattooing has long been a part of British history and culture, but the idea that it originated with criminals is far from the truth. Though historical studies show that many people in prisons had tattoos, there is no comparable evidence from the wider population that suggests that criminals were more heavily tattooed than other demographics. In fact, though the history of the art remains dark, criminals do not come at the beginning, nor were they the most influential.

Tattooing can be dated to ancient times, but in our (more) recent history the art of getting inked in British culture has colonialist roots. In the 17th century, colonial explorers brought back captured ‘natives’ from the East Indies and America, many of whom had tattoos. These were noticed and created intrigue with people at the time, and many of those captured individuals were unfortunately put on display so their tattoos could be seen. Some were even labelled as ‘human curiosities’.

Wealthy pilgrims – mostly men – travelled to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, getting tattoos during their travels. These were often very extensive – much like footballers today – and were often filled with crosses and religious iconography. These early designs were carved onto wooden blocks and printed onto the skin by being dipped in ink. A single needle was used to puncture this black ink into the skin. It was a slow – and painful – process.

Tattoos actually grew in popularity and found their way onto the historical record because of the Navy. The enlistment processes of the time saw a record being kept of the tattoos possessed by every recruit, sometimes even including sketches of the artwork. It is no wonder that we often make associations between the navy and tattooing – they are one of the population demographics with clear historical records on the uptake of the practice. Notable paintings, such as The Death of Nelson, depict tattooed men fighting for their country.

Edward VII was tattooed with a cross while visiting Jerusalem in 1862 and, 20 years later, George V obtained a large dragon tattoo whilst serving with the Royal Navy. Inevitably, this set a trend among the upper classes, and tattooing continued to grow in popularity amongst this group during the late 19th Century. The opening of Japan up to the West in the 1860s saw elements of the country's culture influence our own, and one such area was tattooing. Many travellers returned home with designs. During this time, several tattoo parlours opened and were frequented by both those in high society and military personnel.

Tattooing at this time was still slow and expensive, with the professional industry being largely reserved for these specific groups. The first electric tattoo machine was patented in 1891 in the United States, revolutionising the industry there and around the world. Electrification brought speedier tattooing, lowering prices and opening up the industry to more of society. As the art became accessible to the lower classes and therefore society as a whole, it fell out of fashion with the elite. That is perhaps a trademark of our associations with tattooing today.

The movement that began to see tattooing as an art form and means of self expression throughout the late 20th century helped to then shape the modern practice of tattoo design we see today. Celebrities and notable figures aided this growth through their own embracing of the practice, inspiring trends and interest in a way so synonymous with fashion and beauty. In 2015, a survey found that a fifth of all British adults were inked, with 30 percent of 25- to 39-year-olds having at least one tattoo. We can assume that this has continued to grow.

Today social media plays a huge role in the popularity and promotion of the tattooing industry. Sites such as Instagram have offered artists new ways to showcase their work and build reputations, allowing them to connect with future clients in their cities and build their brand on a potentially global scale. Those interested in tattooing can explore styles, designs and artists without needing to leave the comfort of their home or endlessly scroll through the websites of parlours. While this undoubtedly comes with competition and pressure that we all feel online, no one can doubt the potential. After all, I am sure we have all seen someone sharing their new ink on our stories and feeds. A quick search on Instagram saw me finding tattoo artists and parlours with over 30,000 followers!

That statistic of 30 percent of 25- to 39-year- olds now having body-art highlights just how popular tattooing is becoming amongst younger generations, a fact that this social media craze contributes to massively. York is no exception to this, with a number of students opening up to me about the designs they have and the reasoning behind them. One such student told me that “I like how grounding they are – they’ll be with me always, even if I lose everything.” They described the tattoo of a purple dinosaur accompanied by leaves and clouds that they had done, a reminder of the 3D dinosaur puzzles they solved with their grandparents as a child. Another described how their illustrative butterfly matches those that their mother has on their back, as well as representing their grandmother. Though they of course wanted something beautiful, the sentimentality of the piece was particularly important to them.

A common thread with everyone who spoke to me was the importance of symbolism and meaning in the pieces that they had. It appears to be something that is important to many of us, with tattoos representing that or those who we love, or keeping parts of our identity or heritage. Getting tattooed can be a powerful means of reclaiming the body after grief or trauma. Of course, we should want the designs we put on our bodies to be beautiful – and if the aesthetic is all you are interested in, then more power to you. Art is laden with meanings, but perhaps the permanence of ink on the skin for a lifetime takes this to new heights.

Lifetime may not be the right word, however, as alongside the popularity of tattoos comes the growing popularity of tattoo cover ups and removals. As the amount of people with body art grows, so does buyers' remorse. More and more individuals are choosing to go through the process of having their tattoos removed altogether, despite the additional cost and pain of laser removal. Advancing technology and widening availability of services means this choice is no longer one for celebrities, but one more and more for the average tattoo wearer. Whether it be regrettable relationship tattoos like those of Pete Davidson or just a design that someone no longer loves, it seems that the permanence of tattoos is falling away. As social media draws tattooing further into the world of fashion, our throw away capitalist culture seems to worm its way in. There are even television shows like Tattoo Fixers devoted to rectifying quite often questionable tattooing decisions.

It is by no means a stress-free development though – laser tattoo removal can leave scarring, and though cheaper, still is not cheap. Tattoo coverups are also complex and depending on the vibrancy of the work needing to be covered, sometimes impossible. So if you want a tattoo I would never say don’t, but I would say maybe don’t get it spontaneously. I can certainly see the appeal in getting something meaningful, or with a beauty designed to last the test of time. We may live in a consumer-driven and throw away-focused world where fashion seemingly changes by the week, but tattoos, like history, don’t just go away. Whether applying, removing or covering them up, it is not something to take lightly.

So what have I learnt on my whistlestop tour through tattooing? Mostly that despite not being on a canvas or in a museum, tattooing is an art form with a rich and complex history just like any other, and that the stereotypes surrounding it don't really ring true. We should instead focus on the beauty, meaning and symbolism that is coloured into skin by the craft. We need to respect those who work as tattoo artists for the incredible skills that they possess. But most of all, don’t get a tattoo of your girlfriend's name or visit the parlour drunk – your bank account and future skin will probably thank you!