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Tattoo Ink: Isn’t What It Used To Be

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Tattoo Ink: Isn’t What It Used To Be

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Kimberly Sheridan explores the world of tattoos in her column Tattoo Ink. In “Isn’t What It Used To Be,” she considers nostalgia and tradition (and gatekeeping) with tattooing.

Next to the front counter at the Daredevil Tattoo Museum in NYC is a framed newspaper article from the early 1900s. The color illustration in the top right corner portrays a sailor and a beautiful blonde in heels admiring a large poster outside a tattoo shop window. The poster shows a shirtless man with a mustache and captain’s hat, his hands behind his back and his chest puffed. He’s covered in traditional tattoos including an eagle, anchor, stars, and a woman’s face—with Gertie spelled out next to her. Behind his head it says Captain Slick, Master of Tattooing. The title of the article reads, “Nope. The Tattooing Game Isn’t What It Used To Be.” A pull-quote states boldly, “Time was when 90 percent of the American navy—and many a social leader—looked like walking art galleries, but now, moan the tattoo artists, the men are cake eaters.”

I didn’t know exactly what the term cake-eater implied, but it was clearly not complimentary. According to a quick internet search, it seems to have been 1920s slang for “an effeminate dandy” or “a rich lounge-lizard.” All five of us in the tour group knew why the article was an entertaining choice though: the sentiment within the tattoo community is largely the same now—that things were always better “back then.”


One reason for a museum is to preserve history and relics from the past so we can learn from what came before us. The owners of Daredevil’s started collecting items that were inexpensive or being discarded as throwaways from a once-unimportant subculture, but NYC was rich ground for the start of American tattooing. The first shop in the United States was opened on the Lower East Side by a former sailor.

The sailor’s library of images makes up what we call “traditional” tattooing. The tattoos have strong black outlines and bold colors. Before these tattoos became a trend, the imagery had specific symbolism. Sailors earned swallows after traveling 5,000 nautical miles; pig and rooster tattoos on feet protected against drowning because these animals were shipped in floating crates and often survived when a ship wrecked; an anchor meant the sailor crossed the Atlantic Ocean; and a hula girl meant he had been to Hawaii.

Sailor Jerry was a prominent tattooer in Honolulu during World War II. He had been in the US Navy and was exposed to the art of Southeast Asia during his travels. He’s known for some important contributions to tattooing, including making his own pigments which expanded color options and creating needle formations that were easier on the skin. His designs were made up of swallows, booze, pin-up girls, eagles, nautical stars, Hawaiian themes, and more. Samantha Sheesley, a paper conservator of Jerry’s old flash sheets, stated about the sailors’ desire to get tattooed, “It was always a tie to something, a tie to something bigger than themselves, a reason to be out there fighting.” Tattoo museums, conservators, and researchers keep these narratives alive. The loss of the old ways can be frightening and, once some things are lost to time, they are never again recovered.

Sailors earned swallows after traveling 5,000 nautical miles; … an anchor meant the sailor crossed the Atlantic Ocean; and a hula girl meant he had been to Hawaii.

Mike Bellamy, the owner of Red Rocket Tattoo and my old boss, notes, “The history and reverence for the craft is being watered down …. The kids don’t learn the history and are often unconcerned with knowing who Sailor Jerry was …. Like anything that becomes popular quickly, the history gets forgotten along with the more important aspects of the art. Forgotten are the healing aspects. The symbolism. The styles.”


I felt my own twinge of nostalgia when hearing about Mike’s early days in NYC. I wish I could have seen him in 1993, before tattooing was legal in the city—after he got an illustration degree from Parsons and was about to pick up his first tattoo machine in an unmarked space on Canal Street and “tattoo the shit out of a rubber pencil grip” (a material to practice on that wasn’t human skin). When he shared a two-floor loft in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and got by cutting glass. When Whitney Houston was number one on the charts, the World Wide Web was born and released as public domain, and the average Lower East Side apartment was $552 a month.

Ready to take over the world, Mike had arrived in NYC with his own mythic dreams. He had imagined being a grubby painter living in a loft with an art-groupie girlfriend, like Nick Nolte’s portrayal of Julian Schnabel in the 1989 film, New York Stories. He may not have become an art-world darling, but he did enter into an interesting era of tattooing.

Mike remembers the underground scene and can name the tattoo shops everyone knew about. The law that made tattooing illegal was forty years old and mostly ignored. The shops were mostly tolerated, and he recalls Fun City on St. Marks Place start to brazenly advertise on their windows and sell cappuccinos.

But tattooing was still an outlaw culture, and nothing was really regulated. Tattooers handled their business personally, policed themselves, and learned the craft the hard way. This was before reality TV shows, before social media, before Amazon sold cheap machines, and before YouTube provided endless information. Tattoo conventions were small and infrequent, and the artists guarded their secrets, protected their livelihoods, and acted as industry gatekeepers. Tattooers would gather and meet at CBGB’s Gallery and line the East Village bars. It was a lifestyle. “It was still special, and being heavily covered meant being a standout,” Mike recalls. “It felt a little bit like being a clandestine rock star.”

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Michelle Myles, the owner of Daredevil, also started in NYC in the ’90s and felt fortunate to experience tattooing before it was legalized. She mused on a recent trip of hers in a more rural part of America and how she actually got stink-eye for her tattoos. She laughed and thought to herself, “Ah, the good old days.”


The World War days are long gone. The gritty end-of-the-20th-century days are long gone. Tattooing became legal again in NYC in 1997, expanded and evolved at warp speed, and became more mainstream than rare. The boundaries of the craft have been pushed with new tattoo styles, travel to other countries, and improved tools of the trade. Before, artists had to know how to make their own needles and build tattoo machines. Now, needles are mass produced, color inks and their lasting power have improved, and the internet has made accessing precious tattoo-secrets easier. Mike and Michelle understand the value in preserving pieces of history and passing down parts of the craft that could die out.

But romanticizing the past can also have some treacherous pitfalls: There are countless tattooers clutching American traditions to their colorful chests with a militant fervor that seems more dogma than outlaw. “Traddy Daddies,” as a tattooer in my Daredevil tour group succinctly called them. They’re attached to the right way, they condemn newer styles, they want to keep people out of the industry or control who enters it—which often perpetuates an insular white boys’ club. One thing that history often teaches us is that innovators and outsiders are usually chastised in the present and deified later. There’s a difference between respecting traditions and clinging to outmoded ways, between being informed by the past and glorifying the past, between teaching what was and gatekeeping to ensure things never change.

The word nostalgia was coined originally as a mania of homesickness in Swiss mercenary soldiers. It was viewed as a disorder of the brain with embellished memories and an ideal world created in part by the imagination. “Either nostalgia placates or it deceives,” is how author and professor Willard Spiegelman puts it. Nostalgia—and its cousin, tradition—are tricky two-faced beasts.

A compelling perspective on the hazard of tradition is a Zen story about a cat in a monastery: During evening meditation, the cat made noise and interrupted the teacher and disciples. So, the teacher had the cat tied up during meditation. When the teacher died, they continued to tie the cat up. When the cat died, they tied the next cat up. Centuries later, descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote about the religious significance of tying a cat up for meditation practice.

… history often teaches us that innovators and outsiders are usually chastised in the present and deified later. There’s a difference between respecting traditions and clinging to outmoded ways …

What was once practical got codified into rule. Even scarier, it got assigned spiritual meanings it never represented. It’s always wise to investigate the why behind traditions. In tattooing, the colors and tools used in the past were most likely used because they were the best available to them at the time. Tattoo equipment wasn’t sold so it had to be made. Acetate stencils were used before there was the easier-to-use transfer paper. Sailor imagery was relevant to those folks’ lives and loyalties.

Also, the ugliest and darkest corners of the old world shouldn’t be ignored in favor of blind adoration. The researcher Brené Brown notes, “The best definition of nostalgia is the way things were, when people knew their place.” An unflattering definition with an essential warning. The tattoo subculture is rife with ownership and a competitive scarcity-mindset that insists there’s no room at the table. Perhaps one of the more obvious points here is that American tattooing is only one of many lineages. Tattooing has been around for thousands of years in hundreds of cultures.

A few days after my Daredevil visit, in 2019, I had lunch with Brooklyn tattooer Jess Fang. At the time, she was getting a master’s in Chinese Medicine and studying ancient, indigenous, and medicinal tattooing while also working at Saved Tattoo. I’d never met her before and felt immediately embraced by her openness and generosity. Over mushroom udon and Japanese curry, I asked Jess hard questions about tradition, gatekeeping, and ownership. She noted that besides some of the American traditional library being sexist and racist, it’s also borrowed (see panthers), and that it’s reductive and restrictive to claim to own tattooing. It belongs to everyone. She mused on other indigenous and native traditions, lost due to colonization and the practices being seen as barbaric. She pointed to tattoo innovations coming out of queer communities and the mind-bending new styles from countries like Korea.

“The future is about bridging the gap.” Mycelium was the analogy she offered with a kind smile. Mycelia are a fungal network, tiny threads communicating and enabling the sharing of nutrients. Behind Jess, a tree grew through the middle of the restaurant. Instead of cutting it down, they integrated it, let things coexist.

We’re in an inevitable conversation with the past and we can learn from the best and worst parts of it. Looking back should be informative, but we also have to look around and look forward. It may be a common sentiment that things were better “back then,” but I got a glimpse of the future, and it looks beautiful.


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Kimberly Sheridan

Kimberly Sheridan is a nonfiction writer and Fascial Stretch Therapist living in Spokane, Washington. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Eastern Washington University where she served as the managing editor of Willow Springs magazine. Instagram handle: drawonthewalls