Whether it was 1926 in the Bronx, the Thirties in England or 1946 in Japan, these incredible vintage photographs reveal how tattooed ladies paved the way in tattoo design for the rest of the world.
[In Japan], restricted from wearing kimonos usually worn by royalty and the elite, lower class women rebelled by wearing tattooed body suits, covering their torsos with illustrations that began at the neck and extended to the elbow and above the knee. Wearers hid the intricate designs beneath their clothing and it was these repressive laws that gave rise to the ornate Japanese designs known today.
However the Japanese government, viewing the practice as subversive, outlawed tattoos in 1870 as it entered a new era of international relationships. Tattooists then went underground, where the art flourished as an expression of the wearer’s inner beliefs and aspirations.
Tattooing was then rediscovered by Europeans when exploration brought them into contact with Polynesians and American Indians. Because tattoos were considered so exotic in European and U.S. societies, tattooed Indians and Polynesians drew crowds at circuses and fairs during the 18th and 19th centuries. New York inventor Samuel O’Reilly patented the first electric tattoo machine in 1891, making traditional tools used in Japan a thing of the past in the West. Husbands tattooed their wives with examples of their best work, where they happily played the role of walking advertisements.
At this time, cosmetic tattooing became popular, blush for cheeks, coloured lips, and eyeliner. With world war I, the flash art images changed to those of bravery and wartime icons. By the end of the 1920s, American circuses employed more than 300 people with full-body tattoos who could earn an unprecedented $200 per week.