The history of tattooing spans countries, cultures and generations. The early days of tattoos in the U.S. echoed the new country’s military beginnings, as tattoos were predominantly inked on male soldiers and sailors, who sported patriotic themes or regimental insignia. This same practice was reawakened during the Civil War, when tattoo artists would travel, even from Union to Confederate camps, to practice their art.
The Victorian Era saw acceptance of tattoos grow from the strata of the military and lower income classes to higher echelons of society. A New York newspaper at the time reported that as many as three quarters of the women of high society were tattooed for decoration, mostly with butterflies and flowers.
Like most trends in the U.S., the popularity of tattoos started on the East and West Coasts and moved inward, but times were changing. By the 1920s, tattoos and tattoo artists were equated with the excesses of the Jazz Age, and it fell out of fashion in the general population as part of the sweep of the Prohibition Movement. Tattoos on women were thought to be a sign of promiscuity. This forced some heavily tattooed women into working circus and strip-tease acts. Nonetheless, the practice continued. When Social Security was introduced in the 1930s, a minor trend appeared of getting your newly-issued Social Security number tattooed on your body so that you would remember it!
In the 1940s, many men still sought out tattoo artists. However, as the possibility of the U.S. entering World War II loomed large, the military would not accept individuals with images of naked women or pin-ups, popular tats of the day. Consequently, there was a surge in tattoo business nationwide as men had their tattoos “dressed” with nurses’ uniforms, bikinis or even Native American garb. During the War, it was mainly sailors — like the early days of the U.S. military — who received tattoos. And like the time of the American Revolution and Civil War, their tats were most often patriotic images or regimental insignia.
By the time the War had ended and the first boomers were born, tattoos were once again losing their status in society. Prisoners gave each other tattoos, often to reflect group affiliation, and thus a person observed with a visible tattoo was thought of as either a felon or under-educated. This rebellious reputation made tattoos more attractive for motorcycle clubs and Beatniks, though their chosen imagery differed greatly. Motorcycle club members often had a club logo tattoo in the 1950s, while the Beatniks preferred imagery that suggested Eastern mysticism.
In 1961, a hepatitis outbreak in New York City was traced to a tattoo studio in Coney Island. Consequently, a New York City law banned all tattoo establishments, and most of the country followed suit. (New York City didn’t repeal the law until 1997.) More underground than it had been in decades, tattoo artists worked illicitly. As rock ‘n roll established itself as the voice of the younger generation, some rock stars sported tattoos as a sign of their rebellious nature. Members of the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, in particular, sported visible tattoos.
In Mister Boomer’s circle of family and friends, tattoos were a rarity. He only knew two people — both men — with tattoos. The first was his uncle, a veteran of World War II, who had his army division insignia tattooed on his arm. The other was a manager at the first retail job Mister Boomer worked. The man’s tattoo pictured snakes slithering down an anchor — he had recently left the Navy.
In Mister Boomer’s area, it was commonly said during the 1960s and ’70s that any tattoos or markings should be covered up for job interviews. It was not going to be easy to enter Corporate America if you had a visible tattoo. Thus the alienation between financial classes, heightened by level of education, could also increase over physical appearance. Many long-haired boomers will attest to this same form of discrimination. Consequently, tattooed boomers tended to work in factories, record stores or places where they would not be seen by the general public lest someone be offended.
Now it is said that the number of tattoo studios in the U.S. has doubled since the 1990s. Many corporations still frown on their workers showing tattoos, and tattoo concealer sales have grown to serve this market. At the same time, tattoo removal services have also grown exponentially. According to a 2006 study by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, nearly a quarter of Americans between 18 and 50 have at least one tattoo.
These days it’s hard to turn practically anywhere without seeing people of both genders sporting tattoos. Male and female stars on all types of TV shows, movie stars and sports stars proudly display their tats. More establishments are relaxing their ban on tattoos in the workplace as the popularity seems yet to have reached its peak. Who knows where this will lead? Mister Boomer can’t help but wonder if the Boomer Generation didn’t set the stage for the level of freedom this current generation has to express themselves with their bodies.
While Mister Boomer doesn’t have any tattoos and doesn’t know tattooed boomers himself, he did run into one man in his daily work commute last summer who had a series of tattoos on both his arms and legs. The man appeared to be of boomer age and was dressed in shorts, so he may have been retired or worked as a corporate messenger since he was observed carrying large envelopes each time Mister Boomer encountered him on the train platform. The interesting thing about his tattoos to Mister Boomer, though — and what made him think the man was a boomer himself — was that virtually all of his tattoos were cartoon characters from our boomer days. The man had Mighty Mouse, Heckel and Jeckel, Huckleberry Hound, Popeye, Felix the Cat, Yogi Bear and Bullwinkle and Rocky inked on his arms and legs! While Mister Boomer isn’t of the mindset to ever get a tattoo of any type, this was one display he could appreciate. How is that for a rebellious boomer?
Did you know any fellow boomers who got tattoos back in the day, boomers? Have you jumped on the tattoo bandwagon yourself in subsequent years? Do your children have tattoos?