“Tattooing Now A Fad”

…according to the Davenport Tribune, December 15, 1893 that is!

It sure is a long lasting fad!

With the big number of railroad accidents which have marked the Columbian year there has been a widespread boom given to the art of the tattooer. There has been such a large percentage of unidentified dead among those killed in the smash-ups on the railroads of the country during the past few months that it has a remarkable effect on the travelling public. Men and women who a year ago would have shuddered at the mere suggestion of having the point of a tattooing needle touch their skin are having their names, monograms and even crests tattooed upon their bodies. And they all say that they have been tattooed in the belief that the marks made by the needle will be the best means for the identification of their bodies should they meet death away from their home and friends, says the Philadelphia Record.

But there is another class of people who, caught by the popular fad, are having emblems of secret societies and fraternities to which they belong, marked upon their skin. Many of the best known college men of the country carry the insignia of their fraternity worked upon their arms. It is among the drummers and members of the theatrical profession, however, that the tattoo man finds his greatest number of patrons. They spend a large portion of their lives in railroad cars; their danger from death in wrecks is greater than any other class of people, excepting railroad men, postal clerks and express messengers, and the tattooer is reaping a rich reward of coin from them.

With the spread of the tattooing fad in all parts of the United States the work with the ink and needle has been made well-nigh painless. The tattooing art has kept step with the march of progress in other directions and a brand-new method of puncturing the skin has taken place of the old. Instead of the laborious work of early days an electric tattoo machine has been invented. Where it required an hour in the old-fashion way to tattoo a name or a figure, the electric machine does it in a few minutes. The inventor of the machine is in the city, and lately he chatted interestingly of tattooing in general and the prevalent craze in particular. He is Professor O’Riley, probably the best known tattooer in either the United States or Great Britain. Many of the most noted tattooed men and women who have been on exhibition on both sides of the Atlantic are examples of his skill.

“I have tattooed thousands of persons, both in this country and England,” he said, “but at present the craze exceeds anything I have ever experienced during the last twenty years. Most people believe that only sailors and a vulgar class in general have tattoo marks put upon them. That is true in many instances, but by far the largest number of those that I am tattooing now are men and women of intelligence and refinement. The only explanation that I can make for this is that the danger of being buried among the unknown dead in case of a railroad, steamboat or other accident has been so strangely emphasized during the past year that men and women who travel much very wisely have the needles and ink place sure identification marks upon their bodies.

“Many of those tattooed, the ladies especially, have the work done with artistic surroundings. Men, generally want to be tattooed on the arms, while the women almost invariable have the decoration placed on the lower limb. I recently tattooed a serpent in brilliant colors around the leg of one of the best known comic opera prima donnas of the country. It bears her name in delicate letters. Another popular actress had me place a garter in vivid hues below the knee of her left leg and tattoo upon it ‘Tom,’ the name of her sweetheart, and one of the most prominent juvenile men in the profession.

“I tattooed the insignia of Delta Kappa Epsilon, one of the strongest of college fraternities, upon the arm of almost every member of the society. George Gould is one of the young men upon whose arm I place the symbol of the fraternity.

“Almost every day I put secret society marks on the arms of patrons. Two months ago I was surprised by a call from a tramp. He wanted a peculiar mark by which he was known to knights of the road tattooed in the palm of his right hand.”

I wonder… if Professor Riley could see the world today, would he me amazed, or bored?

“Tattooing as a Fine Art”

Sometimes it’s hard to track down the original source of an article because until relatively recently, we didn’t have draconian copyright laws, and newspapers regularly copied each other. This one comes from The Washington Post (November 4, 1885), and they say they got it from “a New York Paper”, and I suspect that newspaper took it from a Boston-based one. Anyway, let’s begin:

“Some Remarkable Stories by a Meek and Lowly Bostonian.”

Boston, Oct. 16— Just beyond the Mission building the eye of the seeker after novelties is attracted by this sign, upon cardboard:


It is a tiny shop, wedged between two loftier buildings. A door and one broad window, shaded by a scarlet curtain, comprises the entire front. Within, a rear apartment is formed by a curtain composed of the Stars and Stripes. The furniture is plain and simple. The occupant is a young man with a pleasant face. His arms are bared to the elbows, and bear evidence of his skill in a variety of figures, patriotic, mythological, and miscellaneous, “All I can well attend to,” said Mr. Getchell, the artist, when asked whether the demand for his labor is large. “You would be surprised to know how many difference classes of people call upon me to have tattooing done.”

“Sailors and boys chiefly,” was suggested.

“I have a great many of them, of course, but I cannot say that they are my chief customers. I tattoo a great many commercial travelers, who wish a small mark upon their bodies in case of accident. Then ladies and children form a large proportion of my customers. A great many parents bring their children to be marked for identification in case of loss or kidnapping. Children I almost invariably mark on the left leg, just above the ankle. I usually put on some small distinguishing mark, such as a star, an anchor, a strawberry or often a simple dot.”

“Is the process painful?” was asked.

“By no means. The design is first drawn on the skin in India ink, or vermillion; then it is lightly pricked in with needles. The other day a gentleman came in, bringing two little twin boys, about a year and a half old. They were dressed just alike, and they were as similar in every respect as two white beans.

“‘I want one of these chaps marked, so I can tell them apart,’ said the father.

“‘Don’t they know their names?’ I asked.

“‘If they do they both answer to the same name. If I call “Johnnie” they both answer, or if I call “Willie” they both answer, too. That breaks me all up, and I want one of them marked, so I can tell one from the other. I don’t care which one of them you take, only mark one of the quick.’

“So I took one of the little chaps on my knee and pricked a little dot on his left hand, on the space between the thumb and first finger. The boy looked on with great wonderment, but didn’t utter a cry, and went off with his father, looking at his hand.”

“You have many lady customers, you say?”

“Yes, a great many. I had a call from a woman once, who wished to be tattooed from head to foot for exhibition purposes, but I refused to do it. I frequently have calls from ladies who wish some small mark for the purpose of identification in case of accident. Often they dislike to have a mark put upon the arm, especially society ladies. In such cases I frequently mark the shoulder, where the mark will be concealed, even when in full dress. But I have very frequently put the initials, and sometimes the full name, upon the fleshy part of the upper arm.”

“It is said that ladies often have the initials or monograms of their lovers placed upon their arms?” was suggested.

“Oh, frequently! They come in their carriages and have it done. Once I put the words ‘Dear Harry’ on a young lady’s arm.”

“Do they ever come afterward and wish it erased or changed?”

“Oh, often. I had a curious case once. A very pretty and stylish young lady came here in a Herdic cab. She said she had left her carriage standing near the Public Garden and had taken the Herdic to avoid notice. She wanted the initial ‘P’ in a fancy letter placed upon the top of her shoulder.

“‘You see,’ she explained, ‘P stands for Paul, the—the gentleman whom I—I am to marry. I don’t want it where it will show, of course; but put it just where the shoulder band will cover it when I am in full dress. Make it blue, shaded with red.’

“She screamed a little when the needle made the first price, but she soon discovered that the pain was insignificant, and the work was soon done to her satisfaction.

“‘How pleased he will be,’ she said, when it was over. ‘But he shan’t see it until after we are married,’ she added, as she went out.

“A few months afterward a Herdic stopped at the door, and the same lady alighted and entered. ‘You see,’ she explained, with a very slight blush, ‘that the gentleman whose initial you put on my shoulder doesn’t—doesn’t come any more, and I want it changed. Do you think—do you think you could change it to a B?’

“‘Oh, yes,’ said I; ‘that can be done very easily.’

“‘You see, this gentleman’s name is Bashford, and I thought you could change it easily.’

“So I changed the P to a B, and put on a few flourishes, and she left. I thought I had seen the last of her, until a few months ago she came again, and blushed in earnest.

“‘Well,’ said I laughing, ‘must I change it again? What is his name now?’

“‘His name is Mortimer, and oh, we are to be married next week and my dress and veil are all done and I am afraid of making him angry, for he knows nothing of the others. Do you think you could change the B to an M.’

“‘That would be impossible,’ said I, ‘but I can cover the latter over with some other design if you like that.’

“‘No, I shouldn’t like that. It wouldn’t mean anything,’ she said, looking almost ready to cry. Then suddenly she looked up and cried out: ‘Oh, I have it. I just done on Beethoven and so does he. I’ll let the B stand for Beethoven and you shall put on the first two measures of his sonata in A minor. Won’t that be nice?’

“Seizing a pencil, she marked a staff and a few notes of music on a scrap of paper, and handed it to me. I sketched on her shoulder a scroll bearing the initial B in the center, and then drew in the staff and notes as she had indicated. It was quite a nice job, but she was very patient, and finally went away smiling and humming the air which I had tattooed on her shoulder.”

“Did you ever see her again?”

“A few days later I chanced to be in the Boston and Albany Depot, when a lady and gentleman passed me, going toward the train. She had the look of a bride, and as they passed me she gave me a glance and hummed the air that I had scratched upon her shoulder.”

I don’t know about you, but this is one of my favorite old tattoo stories I’ve dug up yet…

“New Fad in Dogdom”

This article comes to us from Indiana’s Fort Wayne News, dated January 5, 1899. These days body modification of animals (except maybe fish piercing) is almost, but not entirely, met with condemnation. I think back in 1899, humans were still connected enough to the process of farming that everyone understood that to condemn tattooing animals while at the same time killing them and eating them was somewhat ridiculous.

Or maybe they just didn’t care — vanity often drives cruelty. There was certainly a vegan animal rights movement at the time that opposed these acts, but they were in the deep minority.

Fido May Sit on His Hind Legs and Exhibit a Tattooed Neck Decoration

For years the world of fashion followed the rapid pace set by Mrs. Frederick Gebhard in the world of dogdom. Her pets were the sleekest, the most accomplished and the best groomed dogs of the South, where they were raised — for Miss Morris was a Southern girl — or of the North, where they spent their summers.

Now, for lack of a fashion leader, the owners of pet dogs must look all over the world and borrow the newest and prettiest from the dogs of all nations, as it were.

Lady Brassey’s poodles were the first “parted” dogs in London, and the Princess of Wales had the first true fox terrier of the drawing-room, but since then fashions and manners have been made for dogs until one’s pet must arise early and study all day long in order to be as up-to-date as the rest of the dog world.

The very latest for pet dogs is the monogram which is tattooed upon the animal in some conspicuous spot to become a permanent mark of ownership and personality.

The favorite tattoo is a monogram which is placed upon the dog’s breast just below his collar bone. Either his own monogram, or that of his mistress, is used, and a fancy scroll work may or may not be placed around it.

To get the monogram upon the dog’s breast a professional tattooer is employed, who works with a sharp needle, pricking the pigments into the tender skin, until it is perfectly tattooed. There are several professionals who make a specialty of this work, and can tattoo a very pretty monogram in a very few minutes. The process is necessarily painful, but so keen is the dog to any improvement upon himself that he patiently endures the pain.

Many professional tattooers are not working upon pet dogs, being quick to see that there is money in the world just at present. They make regular appointments, and call to see the victim at the set time. He, poor fellow, having been exercised and fed is found nicely warmed in a comfortable blanket, ready to be worked upon. At first the dog shows by mute signs that he does not like having the feeling of the needle, but on being admonished by his mistress he subsides and patiently endures the tattoo without a growl. Next day the tattooer calls to see the patient, and, if the work is complete, allows him his liberty again. Otherwise he is worked upon further and kept in warm quarters, with the finest and softest food furnished him at intervals as though he were a baby.

Ugly dogs are slow to tattoo, because they will not allow the tattooer to prick them more than once or twice; so he must make a great many trips and even then the monogram is ragged and out of shape. Fox terriers are the most patient of all.

No owner of a fine dog allows other than professional hands to though her pet, and a monogram for Fido is as expensive as one for his mistress.

“How Abyssinian Women Tattoo”

On September 17, 1891, the Olean Weekly Democrat quoted an article from Popular Science about how tattoos were done in Abyssinia (what is now Ethiopia). I don’t think that they were talking about the West in the text that I’ve highlighted, but in 1891, they may well have been because during that decade it was very chic among the “upper society classes“.

Painting is temporary and needs frequent renewal. In many parts of the world we find color designs, elaborate, curious, sometimes beautiful, made permanent by tattooing. The pattern and the method vary greatly with locality. In some regions men only tattoo, in others only women, in others both sexes. Here it is confined to the nobles, there to the servile. In Abyssinian women chiefly tattoo. The whole is covered, even the gums are painted blue. An old woman operator’s tools were a pot of blacking (charred herbs), a large iron pin, bits of hollow cane and pieces of straw — these last for pencils. She marks out the design, prices dots with the pin loaded with the dye, and goes over it repeatedly. To allay the subsequent irritation it is plastered with a green poultice; the scab must not be picked off.

“Female Beauty”

This interesting (and I should add, potentially incorrect) overview of body modification and beauty trends around the world comes from before the previous tattoo trend (which erupted in the last 1800s), dating to August 20, 1851 in the Sheboygan Lake Journal. I can’t say I agree with them though that only civilized people can appreciate the beauty of an unmodified body — and given that only forty-five years after this article came out, articles were commonplace about how commonly tattooed royalty was, I think it more emphasizes the truth that notions of beauty are personal, change constantly, and are absolutely not as immutable as the laws of physics.

Oh, and I think by “Guzurant” they mean what’s now “Gujurat” (eastern India), and “New Holland” is the historic name for Australia.

The following curious facts, respecting female beauty in the various countries of the world are interesting. They show how the standard of beauty varies in different countries, and how beauty itself, though depending upon general laws, as certain as those which govern the universe, is without any adventitious aid, appreciated only in proportion as civilization advances, and taste improves with intellectual cultivation:

The ladies of Arabia stain their fingers and toes red, their eye-brows black, and their lips blue. In Persia, they paint a black streak around the eyes, and ornament their faces with various figures. The Japanese women gild their teeth, and those of India paint them red. The peal of the teeth must be died black to be beautiful in Guzurant. — The Hottentot women paint the entire body in compartments of red and black. In Greenland the women cover the face with blue and yellow, and they frequently tattoo their bodies by saturating thread in soot, inserting them beneath the skin and drawing them through. Hindoo women, when they wish to appear particularly lovely, smear themselves with a mixture of saffron, turmeric and grease. In nearly all the islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the women as well as the men, tattoo a great variety of figures on the face, lips, tongue, and the whole body. In New Holland they cut themselves with shells, and by keeping the wounds open for a long time form deep scars in the flesh which they deem highly ornamental. And another singular addition is made to their beauty by taking off, in infancy, the little finger of the left hand, at the second joint. In ancient Persia, an aquiline nose was was often thought worthy of the crown; but the Sumatran mother carefully flattened the nose of her daughter. Among the savage tribes of Oregon, and also in Sumatra and Arracan, continual pressure is applied to the skull in order to flatten it, and thus giving it new beauty. The Persians have a strong aversion to red hair; the Turks on the contrary are warm admirers of it. In China small round eyes are liked; and the girls are continually plucking the eyebrows that they may be thing and long. — But the great beauty of a Chinese lady is in her feet, which from childhood, are so compressed by bandages as to effectively prevent any further increase in size. The four smaller toes are turned under the foot to the sole of which they firmly adhere; and the poor girl not only endures much pain but becomes a cripple for life. Another mark of beauty consists in finger nails so long that casings of bamboo are necessary to preserve them from injury. An African beauty must have small eyes, thick lips, a large, flat nose, and a skin beautifully black.

In New Guinea, the nose is perforated, and a large piece of wood or bone inserted. On the northwest coast of America; and incision more that two inches in length is made in the lower lip, and then filled with a wooden plug. In Guiana, the lips are pierced with thorns, the heads being inside the mouth, and the point resting on the chin. — The Tunisian woman of moderate pretensions to beauty, needs a slave under each arm, to support her when she walks, and a perfect belle carries flesh enough to load down a camel.


Cosmetic tattooing is nothing new; at almost the same point in the last “tattoo trend” as it emerged in our current one, tattooing of permanent makeup became popular. This article, first printed in the London Mail is excerpted from The Washington Post, December 4th, 1904. Be sure to read the last paragraph by the way, it’s pretty funny.

How Women Now Achieve the Bloom that Won’t Come Off.

The idea of ladies having that delicate rose color which is the desire of all tattooed into their cheeks is not new, but it is only lately, writes a correspondent, that a permanent tint has been secured. Formerly there was the horrible possibility of the beautiful pink cheeks gradually assuming a purple tinge.

The new method of ordinary tattooing is by means of an electric needle. The instrument is wielded just like a pencil, the little needle darting in and out so quickly as to be almost imperceptible and forming a very fine line, which, for patternmaking, is a great advantage. For the face, however, the old-fashioned hand needle is often used, as it gives a soft, blurry effect. It is another proof of the readiness of woman to suffer in the cause of vanity. They are not however, called upon to suffer any sensation of pain, as cocaine is mixed with the paint. Many clients indifferently read a book during the process. The color is a harmless vegetable dye, and varies in tone to harmonize with different complexions. It is put on in a patch in the middle of each cheek, and then gradually shaded off round the edges.

A pair of rosy cheeks complete take two sittings of about two hours each to tattoo, and the sitter generally gives her face a week’s rest between them. When the operation is over the face is covered first with cream and then with a dusting of powder. For a couple of days the color is somewhat too vivid, but after that the upper skin, which has, of course, been honeycombed by the needle comes off in flakes and, underneath is the rose petal complexion.

A large number of men have undergone the operation. One explained that he had been in London for the last few years, but was going down into the country and and wished it to be thought that he was spending his time abroad! He wanted his neck and shoulders tattooed with brown to represent sunburn.

I have to admit that since I’ve been reprinting these old articles, I’m really curious about exactly how well cocaine in ink works… If someone decides to try it (a 10% solution is what the articles say is used), please let me know how it goes.

“Royalty and Tattoo”

The end of this feature was too degraded to read, but I thought that this article from June 17, 1899 from the The Lima Daily News (Lima, Ohio) was interesting both in how much name dropping it does, the range of tattoos it talks about, and the final statement on the size of the trend. The more of these old stories I read the more connected I feel to the past — history really does repeat itself.


Tattoo is just now the popular pastime of the leisured world, says Harmsworth’s Magazine. One of the best known men in high European circles, the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia is most elaborately tattooed, Prince and Princess Waldemar of Denmark, Queen Olga of Greece, King Oscar of Sweden, the duke of York, the Grand Duke Constantine, Lady Randolph Churchill, with many others of royal and distinguished rank have submitted themselves to the hekling but painless and albeit pleasant sensation afforded by the improved tattooing needle which is nowadays worked on a simple plan aided by the galvanic current, the genius of the artist supplying the rest of the operation. The duke of Save-Coborg and Gotha like his cousin, Alexis of Russia, is another elaborately tattooed man. Anyone meeting the duke of Newcastle or the earl of Portarlington, or Sir Edmand Lechmere in the street would hardly realize the fact that these gentlemen are proud wearers of tattoo marks— much so.

The present fancy for being tattooed, according to Prof. Riley— than whom no artist has tattooed more distinguished people—mainly exists among men who have traveled much, which ladies have also taken a strong liking to this form of personal decoration, which, from a woman’s point of view is about as expensive as dress, but not so costly as good jewelry. In place of spending her spare time posing in front of the camera, or reclining her head in the dentist chair, or placing herself resignedly in the hands of her coiffeur for want of something better to do, or for the pirpose of passing her time in the “off” season, the lady about town now consents to be pricked by the tattoo artist’s operating needle, and to have her forearm or shoulder adorned with a serpent representing eternity. The skill of the tattoo artist to be realized properly and fairly, must be seen in beautiful colors on a white skin— work which is amazing.

The sketches he employs are made in various colored inks. His great skill is in the faithful reproduction of any symbol or picture desired by the sitter. These designs vary in size from a small fly or bee to that of an immense Chinese dragon occupying the whole space offered by the back or chest, or a huge snake many inches in thickness coiling round the body from the knees to the shoulders.

Tattooing has its humorous side as well as its serious. A lover whose heart was once melted away in a soft, sweet, passionate love got the artist to imprint in indelible inks, over the region of his heart, a single heart of charming and delicate outline, colored, as it should be, in all the blushing tints, with the name of his loved one stamped thereon. Three years afterward he followed the artist to London, and seeking him out, with face palled, the light of his eye almost gone out, and looking utterly miserable and careworn, he requested the tattooer to imprint under that same symbol, in bold big letters, the word “deceiver.” A well-known army officer had tattooed over his heart the simple name of “Mary,” with a lover’s knot, but six months afterward the uncanny word “traitress” tattooed under it. An English actress had a butterfly tattooed on her fair shoulder, the initials of her fiance, “F. V.,” being placed underneath. Not long afterward she also came back and had the “F” converted to “E” and the “V” into “W,” the letters reading “E. W.” She eventually married “E. W.” and to this day “E. W.” thinks his initials were the first tattooed on her arm.

Colonials visiting England usually return home bearing on some part of their body an emblem of some national importance. This takes the shape of a portrait of the queen, or the standard, the union jack, also, not being despised. A man may admire a favorite picture and desire a reproduction of it tattooed on his back or upon his chest. Prof. Riley is at the present time engaged “etching” on a man’s back Landseer’s famous picture, “Dignity and Impudence” and when finished it will measure twelve by nine inches. The same artist is also outlining on the chest of a Scotch baron a copy of Constable’s famous etching “Mrs. Pelham,” after Sir Joshua Reynolds, the original etching of which fetched, in June last, at Christie’s, the record sum of £425.

While most people are pleased to go through the performance of being tattooed just for fun of the thing, as it were, many, on the other hand, approach the tattooer with a serious object in view. Eschewing all fancy designs, they choose frequently their own name and address as an aid to identification in case of accident, or, as has been the case recently, a wife may induce her husband to have her name tattooed on her arm as a guaranty of good faith.

An official connected with one of our leading railways has had tattooed around his arm, in snake fashion, a train going at full speed. The scene is laid at night. The shades of evening envelop the snorting locomotive and flying carriages, while the rays of light proceeding from the opened furnace of the locomotive are effectively shown lighting up the cars. There are lights, too, issuing from the carriages, showing how the passengers inside are passing away the time. Some of them are reading, some sleeping, (article become illegible)

…There are over 100,000 people in London who bear on part of their anatomy some evidence of the tattooing needle.


Ever since my friend Patrick sent me a (recent) article about eyeball tattooing (read more about eyeball tattooing in the BME encyclopedia), I’ve wanted to tattoo my eyes blue. My eyes are already blue, but I want the whole eye (as in what’s currently white) to be blue as well… I just have to find a tattoo artist with a steady hand and grow my balls a little bigger. I know it’s “safe”, but still, it kind of freaks me out.

In any case, while reading old newspapers I came across this story from the New York Press (co-published in The Washington Post on November 26, 1899). The title (above) is because the rest of the article was about early hair transplant methods (both eyelashes and eyebrows). Anyway, here’s the part about eyeball tattoos:

“French Eye Doctor Also Tattoos Your Eyes, if You Wish It.”

Those people who are dissatisfied with the color of their eyes can have them changed. A Frenchman in New York can tattoo your eyes to any shade you may desire, without pain or inconvenience.

It is in the Tenderloin [Note: this means "a city district notorious for vice and graft"] and in the lower ranks of the theatrical profession that the eye doctor derives the greater part of his clientele. One can get a lovely pair of brown eyes for the moderate outlay of $10, and, in addition, obtain a guarantee that the eyes will keep their color for at least two years.

The color of the eye, for the most part, is determined by the amount of pigment material in the iris. According to physiologists, the material is not known to serve any use, and it can be of any color or shade whatsoever.

All that the Frenchman does is to show the patient a chart and ask her to chose a color. The eye is made insensible to pain by a few drops of a 10 per cent. solution of cocaine. While the action of the cocaine is getting under way the eye artist fills with the desired pigment color a tiny hypodermic syringe, made especially. Then he introduces the delicate tattooing needle of the syringe through the cornea into the iris and presses gently upon the handle of the instrument. In a minute or two the iris is diffused with the desired tint and the little operation has been performed. Not even an expert could tell the difference between a tattooed eye and a natural one, after the prick made by the hypodermic needle has healed up, and the Frenchman promises that the tattooed eyes will keep their color for years.

I guess they were a lot more hardcore about their mods back in 1899. So… how long until this trend starts again? I don’t mind not being first (and in some ways, I’d rather not be!), but as soon as I work up the courage and find the right artist I’m going to do it.

Meh, Rachel has an eyeball implant, it can’t be any scarier than that?

“To Remove Tattooing.”

I think in today’s history article I’ll quote an article on tattoo removal from 1891… Maybe tomorrow I’ll cover cosmetic tattooing (also popular in the 1800s). This article is from The Daily Light (San Antonio, Texas), dated June 1, 1891.

Mr. T. W. Dodd, of Walsingham, England, writes as follows in the Chemist and Druggist:

“Twenty years ago I removed three very indelible tattoo marks on my hand. Certainly it left a scar, but now it is scarcely perceptible. The operation was performed by applying nitric acid with the stopper of the bottle (a better instrument would be a glass rod pointed, to carry the acid), just sufficient to cover the stain, so as to avoid making a larger scar than needful, the acid to remain about one and a half minutes, until the cutis vera was penetrated and a crusted appearance shown, then washed of with clean, cold water. In a few days after this treatment a scab forms, which contains the tattoo mark or stain; remove it, and should inflammation supervene, poultice and bathe with warm water. In this way the skin with the stain is not only removed almost painlessly (I mean tattoo marks about the size of peas), but the nitric acid at the same time to a certain extent seems to decolorize the stain. Of course large tattoo marks, greatly extending over the surface, must necessitate the operation being performed differently.”

Dr. Variot, of the Paris Biological society, advises the following method: Tattoo the skin, in the usual way, with a concentrated ‘solution of tannin, following the original design. Then apply the crayon of nitrate of silver until the part tattooed with the tannin blackens. Wipe off excess of moisture and allow matters to take their own course. Slight pain continues two or four days, and after two months the cicatrix which results will almost disappear.’ — American Druggist.

“Queer Trades To Live”

In 1901 The San Francisco Chronicle published an article (later reprinted August 25, 1901 in The Washington Post) discussing unusual jobs that people (who they called “celebrities”) could make a decent living at — this included widow-consoler, tail-biter (someone who amputates the tails off of dogs), prayer-seller, and tattoo artist. Here’s what they wrote about the option of becoming a tattoo artist — the profession hasn’t changed much, other than the fact that tattooing is no longer painless* and the pervasiveness of blood borne pathogens requires modern artists to focus more strongly on cross-contamination.

Oh yeah, and most of the time these days, tattoo artists are not called “the professor”. Well, if I ever start tattooing again, I’m going to try and re-popularize that nomenclature.

A Professional Tattoo Man.

He works in a little hole in the wall between a saloon and a shooting gallery. The front is plastered over with photographs showing some of his best work and with designs for the human body, each having its accompanying price. Plain initials he will put on your leg or arm for 25 cents, and he will add a decorative frill for a little more. An American flag costs $1.25 and a full spread eagle twice that sum. He will take the photograph of any friend and transfer a copy to the skin of a customer for $3.50, the process taking a half hour.

The professor does not work with the old-fashioned sailor needle, but with an electrical machine that looks and acts like the fiendish “buzzer” of a dentist. At the point is a battery of half a dozen tiny needles, which shoot like lightning back and forth when the power is applied, each leaving a tiny microscopic prick. When he has a customer the professor takes a stencil, marks out the design, and then follows the line with his buzzer, dipping it in the proper ink as he goes. This is for customers who patronize him openly in his office. For those who avoid publicity and want the work done at home he sends his Japanese assistant, who works by hand, after the old-fashioned method.

“The tattooing is perfectly harmless and is not painful at the time,” he says. “It swells and inflames afterward, but little more than an ordinary pin prick. We generally tattoo the ladies on the shoulder just below where a low-neck dress comes. I have tattooed lots of the toniest people in town; in fact, they are my best customers. People used to have a prejudice against tattooing; they are getting over that.

I love the last paragraph — you could read the exact same thing (well, other than “toniest” which I had to look up to know what it meant) in a tattoo interview in 2006. It’s funny how much things stay the same, but through the eyes of the moment they always feel so fresh. Oh, and to put the pricing into context, $3.50 an hour in 1901 dollars is about $80-$150 an hour in today’s dollars.

* Until 1914, tattoo ink was often mixed with cocaine to make the process painless.