The Tattooed Women of the 20s, 30s and 40s

Now a days it seems like everyone has tattoos and it is easy to forget how rare it used to be to see someone with one – especially women! The Daily Mail put together a great little piece on the women of the 1920s-1940s who sported head to toe ink before it became mainstream. These women were a rare breed and as you will read – we all owe them a head nod for being soo brave!

Article by Olivia Fleming – From bike gangs, to star-crossed lovers and rebellious teenagers, tattoos are often thought of as modern day markings, usually of the wayward and tough.

However tattoos are far from a new cultural phenomenon. Decades before Jimmy Buffet sang ‘It’s just a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling’, women all over the world were proudly adorning their entire bodies in defining ink.

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.

Body art: A woman with a tattooed body suit in 1931Body art: Mrs John Conway of the Bronx was tattooed by her husband in 1926
Vintage ink: An American woman with a tattooed body suit in 1931 (left), and Mrs John Conway of the Bronx, whose designs are on exhibition at the Harlem museum, was tattooed by her husband in 1926 (right)

While according to scientists, the earliest record of tattoos was found in 1991 on the frozen remains of a Copper Age ‘Iceman’ dating from about 3300 B.C., the art of tattooing has been practiced in Japan – for beautification, magic, and to mark criminals – since around the fifth century B.C.

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.

Tokyo drift: Unable to wear kimonos, usually reserved for royalty and the elite, Japanese lower classes rebelled with tattooed body suits, covering their torsos with illustrations that began at the neck and extended to the elbow and above the kneeTokyo drift: Unable to wear kimonos, usually reserved for royalty and the elite, Japanese lower classes in Forties rebelled with tattooed body suits

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.

The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word tattau, meaning ‘to mark,’ and was first mentioned in explorer James Cook’s records from his 1769 expedition to the South Pacific.

Japan's rebel: The government outlawed tattoos in 1870 as it entered a new era of international relationships, so tattooists went underground, where the art flourished in the Forties as an expression of the wearer's inner beliefs Japan’s rebels: The government outlawed tattoos in 1870 as it entered international relationships, so tattooists went underground, where the art flourished in the Forties as an expression of the wearer’s inner beliefs

Girl with the dragon tattoo: An English woman wearing crystal earrings is seen getting her first tattoo in 1930Girl with the dragon tattoo: An English woman wearing a pair of elegant crystal earrings is seen getting her first tattoo in 1930

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.

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4 Responses to The Tattooed Women of the 20s, 30s and 40s

  1. Vince says:

    I love how traditional the tattooists are dressed themselves, too.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Roundup 9.7.12 | Whipshader

  3. Pingback: Body Art by Erica Sablofski | soci3240

  4. Pingback: 1940s weekend at the black country museum - Gingermegs Vintage

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