How Historians of Modern Tattooing Explore a Long-Hidden Past

Patriotic tattoo designs, possibly by Frank Harrington, Boston, ca. 1935. COURTESY JARED HOOK Copyright tattoo archives_10 ALTLAS OBSCURA Eve Kahn 2021

Some of you may already know ATLAS OBSCURA as “Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders” and use it when traveling to steer past the usual tourist destinations.

With the motto “Our mission is to inspire wonder and curiosity about the incredible world we all share”, a comprehensive database of the world’s most wondrous places and foods has been created since 2009 by a global community of explorers.

One of those explorers is Eve Kahn. She is journalist and historian, who’s specialized in forgotten personalities and material culture. Whether it seems important that vintage vampire killing kits are real and the question of why people spend thousands on empty pill bottles of dead celebrities. Or, how ceiling fans allowed slaves to eavesdrop on plantation owners. I don’t know if it’s the sum of why Eve arrived at the topic of tattoo history.

But she does grapple with the growing interest in tattooing’s multi-faceted, multi-cultural origins and shadowy sides in her recent article in Atlas Obscura, “How Historians of Modern Tattooing Explore a Long-Hidden Past.” Or rather, with tattoo historians engaging with owners of historically significant material.

A – as we find – worth reading article with numerous links and recommendations to tattoo legends, tattoo researchers, cultures and curiosities, which you should like to take a look at.

Perhaps, the one or the other will understand better, from what the modern practice of tattooing has actually developed and that it is by far not just a trend or a fad, but so much more…  

We don’t want to give too much away.

Eve’s article is, however and among other things, about the historians Margaret Hodges and Derin Bray, who dealt for their book “Loud, Naked & in Three Colours: The Liberty Boys & The History of Tattooing in Boston” with the Liberty family. They managed tattoo studios in Boston (USA) since the 1910s.

A veritable treasure trove of Liberty’s family artifacts are housed by the tattoo-icon Lyle Tuttle, among others like Don Ed Hardy, Henk Schiffmacher and Chuck Eldridge.

Eve has Jamie Jelinski, a Canadian-based visual culture historian, note in her article, that we have only a very partial view of tattoo history. However, since the last 10 years, a large number of academics from all disciplines have been attracted to the field of tattooing.      

The difficulty sometimes seems to be for tattoo historians, to gain the trust of families and owners, who keep archives in institutional depots or in garages and attics.

Lars Krutak, known to many as The Tattoo Hunter, is a tattoo anthropologist and reports in his new book “The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Body Modification”, expected to be published in 2023, that the subject “is finally getting the attention it deserves”.

Our note at this point

We can only strongly advise all tattoo enthusiasts and young, dedicated tattoo artists to take a closer look at the history of tattooing. The tattoo-icons of yesterday are not the Instagram-account-monsters of today.

Engage with the old colored guys and listen to their stories. If you really want to understand the tattoo, you should know or at least have heard parts of its history, its protagonists and maybe one or two curiosities.

Everything else is just dandelion and infinity tattoo.

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