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Although the current celebrity tattoo craze has brought tribal and Japanese designs to the modern forefront, there still remains a loyal following for the timeless retro tat.

Those who grew up in the popular culture still feel an affection for the traditional designs they've seen growing up : hearts & roses, crosses & other religious symbols, skull & crossbones - even vintage 1940's pin-up girls and cartoon characters - are resurging in popularity as a way to just have fun and buck the current trend in tattoo fashions.

A brief history of the tattoo in America


first tattoo machine design
Patent for the electric
tattoo machine, 1891

The Tattooist, Norman Rockwell
The Tattoist
Norman Rockwell, 1944.

skull & dagger tattoo
Skull & dagger tattoo,
circa 1950.

amy winehouse tattoos
Amy Winehouse famously
sported 1950's retro tattoos.

Although tattooing can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt and China, (and onward toward Polynesia and Japan) the modern trend toward mainstream tattoos in the Western world all began with a simple invention in 1891.

That's the year New York Bowery resident Samuel O'Riley came up with the idea for an electric tattoo machine featuring a pen gun with an ink reservoir. The result was faster and more affordable "tattaugraphs."

Hearts, roses, Mom & more...

Business boomed, and later Coney Island became the center of the tattoo universe in America spreading nationwide.

In the 20th century, World War I saw the rise in popularity of American flag, eagles and other patriotic tattoo symbols and icons. Later, tattoo parlors began to gravitate toward military bases as the country entered World War II. The now traditional rose & banner inscribed with a sweetheart's name, the pretty pin-up girl, sailing ships, or the simple inscription "Mom" became widely popular.

Also popular were particular place names, which helped soldiers or sailors chronicle the various towns through which they travelled or saw military action.

Tattoo taboos

By the 1950's, the practice fell out of favor as tattoos came to be considered the mark of street or motorcycle gangs, punk hoodlums and juvenile delinquents.

Tattooing fell into even further disrepute by the 1960's as a sudden hepatitis outbreak forced mass closings of tattoo studios (in New York, tattoos became illegal) and scared many away from even considering a tattoo. The tabloids quickly blared banner headlines broadcasting the horrors of blood poisoning and other diseases associated with "tattoo dens."

Everything old is new again

However, as health codes became more stringent and laws were relaxed, a turnaround in the late 60's was helped along by tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle, who is now generally credited for almost single-handedly reversing the trend.

And the rest, as they say, is tattoo history - as rock icons such as Janis Joplin and fashion trend-setters such as Cher became famous Tuttle clients paving the way to the current mania for celebrity tattoos.

Today, the tattoo craze has come full circle as retro tattoo designs have once again gained favor with the "anti-cool" crowd perhaps making the classic tattoo in effect, cooler than cool...

For more, check out additional facts, information, and trivia surrounding traditional tattoo design on the Web, including symbols and meanings, tattoos inspired by classical or religious artwork, as well as historical and entertaining tattoo tales and featured picture galleries :

More information about traditional tattoos around the Web:

Tattoo Archive - An extensive record of the art form told in words & images including an A-Z glossary detailing famous tattooists & tattoo events through the ages, with a comprehensive list of related resources..

Rose Tattoos - Body Art - Feature story from with facts & history on the rose as a popular symbol and tattoo design, with short descriptions of rose colors and their meanings, related links & suggested reading.


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