Tattoo Culture in the Victorian Era

Tattoo Culture in the Victorian Era

As tattoos become more socially acceptable for all walks of life, it's worth remembering that this is nothing new. In many cultures the world over, tattoos have long served as reminders of loved ones, symbols of journeys and substitutes for jewelry - and the Victorians were no exception. 

The expeditions of James Cook in the 1760s introduced several tattoo traditions to nautical communities in Europe. Captain Cook also brought back a young Ra'iatean man, mistakenly known as Omai but his name was pronounced "Mae." He was the second Pacific Islander to visit Europe and was embraced by aristocratic society and met King George during his two year stay in England. He returned home in 1777 and settled in a European style house with two Maori servants. A complicated scenario to say the least.

In this Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait you can make out the tattoos on his hands and arms.

From the voyages of Captain Cook, body art took hold among sailors and other people on the edges of society. Here is a visualization of tattoo motif popularity between 1821-1920 by decade as derived from a survey of almost 60,000 convicts sent to Australia from England in the early 19th century, from the Smithsonian Magazine. While tattoos seem to have spread from lower classes (sailors, criminals and deportees), we see that the body art is less about expressing criminal identity and more about personal sentiment and story by people who had little other means to leave a record of their existence. 

Many sailors brought tattoos home with them as souvenirs as well as developing their own tattooing methods and designs, influenced by nautical traditions and superstitions. The opening of Japan to foreign trade in 1853 brought a wave of Japanese motifs into Victorian tattoo art. By the 1870s the tattoo trend had taken hold in mainstream society and even touched the upper class.

victorian tattoo

Tattoo culture, boosted by naval experiences of working class and royal heirs alike, was popular in the United States starting in the 1850s and 1860s, in part because it served as a safeguard against anonymity during the Civil War. New York's first tattoo parlor is said to have opened in 1846 by Martin Hildebrandt.

Prince Edward (Queen V's son and future king Edward VII) got tattoos on a grand tour of the empire, stopping in Jerusalem at the Razzouk tattoo parlor for a Jerusalem Cross in 1862. The tattoo parlor is still operating and traces its traditions 700 years back to Egyptian Coptic traditions. This was particularly scandalous as "Bertie," as he was known was on a grand tour in the wake of a sex scandal he'd caused in America - a scandal that caused his father to give him a stern talking to on a long walk in the rain, after which he fell ill and died. Queen Victoria forever blamed her son for the death of her beloved Albert, so Bertie's jaunt across the empire was not appreciated. On an 1882 trip to Japan he got another - a dragon. King Edward's sons George V and Albert Victor also had tattoos.

Prince Edward is fourth from the right. 

bertie abroad

While we're talking about Bertie... One of Edward VII's (numerous) lovers was the American "Dollar Princess" Jennie Jerome, who became best known for being Winston Churchill's mother. While her husband, Lord Churchill was in the final stages of syphilis, they went on a cruise around the world. She's reputed to have seen a deckhand giving a tattoo and left the ship with a curved serpent around her wrist. This was first reported in a November 1894 San Francisco article. However, this tattoo seems to be legend since there is simply no evidence in any photos.

According to an 1893 article in the Sully County watchman, both women and men received tattoos - usually in hidden places.

"This victim was indeed one to be proud of. He was literally covered with all sorts of artistic fancies, from a copy of some famous nude study exhibited in the Paris salon to comic sketches, miniature landscapes, dream faces taken from women’s photographs, likenesses of well known actresses, and flowers, birds, bees and insects innumerable. A complete pair of navy blue socks had been tattooed from above the ankle to the tips of the toes, which defied detection. He was quite proud of all of this, and showed the designs with evident pleasure."

The tattoo artist included a juicy bit about the ladies who visited for body art:

“I am an electrician by profession,” said the man, “and it was while serving in the English army that I learned tattooing. I used to do odd jobs among the soldiers. Then when I left the army some gentlemen came to me to have certain designs tattooed on them, and I consented. My work developed into a business, and I have been here these years just as busy as I can be.”
“You have ladies also who come to you for this purpose?”
“Yes. Their designs are simple, however. Usually flowers, insects, or birds. I have in mind at present a lady much famed at court, a friend of the prince of Wales, who has a bee tattooed on her shoulder to represent the initial of her christian name.”


In the 1890s on a 9-month tour to the "Far East," Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovich (the future Tsar Nicholas) became enamored with Japanese culture and got himself a dragon tattoo in Nagasaki. Japanese culture at the time associated tattoos with criminals and lower classes, but the Duke either was ignorant to this fact or did not care. He was not known for being particularly bright or for being in touch with the thoughts of lower class people. 

The National Maritime Museum Cornwall did an exhibit which highlighted the true artistry and respect for the craft shown by Victorian tattoo artists. These images, inked by Sutherland Macdonald (who opened the first public tattoo parlor in England) could be in a natural history book. 

sutherland macdonald

 sutherland macdonald


Let's not forget Maud Stevens Wagner - who met her tattoo artist husband, Gus Wagner at the 1904 Worlds Fair celebrating the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. They were some of the last American tattoo artists to work by "hand-poked" method despite the invention of machines. You can see the edge of what looks to me like her dad's name on her right arm: David V(an Buran) Stevens. Gus gained inspiration during his tie as a merchant seaman starting in 1897 - you can see some of the original pages from his scrapbook here.

maud wagner tattoo

And Gus working on Maud


I like seeing these other pictures that show Maud in clothes of the day with their daughter. You can see the tattoos on Gus' wrist.

Flash by Gus Wagner


 shop compass rose design

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