When you think of Victorians , what probably springs to mind are fainting ladies, top hats, corsets, filthy streets, children in torn clothes with no shoes (always asking for more gruel), a huge gulf in the rich poor divide, steam trains, workhouses and bustle skirts- who wouldn’t? It is what the era is best known for.
Perhaps what is is not best known for however, is the fact that under those tight laced, rustling skirts and fitted, silver-buttoned waistcoats is the possibility of an array of ink and beautiful artwork.
Captain Cook wandered over the South Pacific ocean in the late 1700’s, bringing back with him a tattooed tribe’s man and some recently inked sailors, many were travelling to areas with tribal activity and places where they could easily and inexpensively acquire skin art. It was a way of logging your travels (A turtle when you had been south of the equator, an anchor if you had crossed the atlantic..) because of this, being inked would long be associated with men of the sea, and even with mainland criminal activity.
One of Cook’s associates, Sir Joseph banks (his Science Officer), was an extremely wealthy and influential man, he paid to be able to accompany Cook on his expedition and also returned sporting ink and was soon showing it off to the royalty and well-to-do of the British upper classes.
Although tattoos were long associated with criminality, hooliganism and sailors (up to 90% of European sailors were tattooed), the latter association (men of the sea) also came to go hand in hand with wealth and the ability to travel. Tattoos became an outward and blatant way to display wealth and advantage. This idea triggered an explosion in the popularity of tattoos amongst the gentry in Britain, particularly in the latter years of the century when the quality of tattoo instruments improved exponentially.
The first electro-magnetic needle was invented in 1891, and replaced traditional tapping techniques.
The Prince of Wales followed suit, making a personal religious statement with a tattoo of a cross whist in Jerusalem on his grand tour. He was soon after mimicked by his two sons who soon also had copies of their own made, with personal touches, of course!
It is rumoured that Queen Victoria had a tattoo of a tiger fighting an eagle on her person!Women were not permitted to wear make-up during her reign, so perhaps this was why it became a desired beauty alternative!
Maybe Winston Churchill got his sense of defiance and rebellion from his mother, the renowned beauty, Lady Jennie Churchill.?
It was said that she had a small and dainty tattoo of a snake eating its own tail, in memory of the coronation of king Edward VII on her wrist- his crowning was thought to usher the end of Victorian conservatism. Lady Churchill often covered her little tattoo with large jewels and bracelets when in certain society, she was known for her beauty and jewellery but oddly, not for the tattoo…
By the 1880’s was was reported that over 100,ooo people were tattooed, and there were over 20 tattoo artists in London alone.
They were apparently talented enough with their art to rival even the most skilled Asian practitioner, and by 1898 it was estimated by society writers that over 20% of the British Gentry had a tattoo!
With the refinement of the equipment used to make tattoos, the practice itself became more refined and widespread, getting a tattoo became cheaper- The lower classes, always seeking to elevate themselves to greatness and wealth also started getting the cheaper, more readily available and less painful tattoos.
It turned the elitist and wealthy tattoo scene into something that almost anyone could take part in, and by the early 1900’s even young school boys were getting tattoos. It was a herald of the death of the once famous ”full body tattoo” men and women of the freak shows and circus’s- It was no longer something mysterious or arduous to go through, and in a way it meant that ”anyone” could do it.
Of course, as is always the way, when the working classes follow a trend of the high class, it will without a doubt change as quickly as it came. The upper classes refrained from having art on their skin, and with rising popularity of tattoos, ink was no more seen on the skin of the gentry of England thereafter, or much since..
The motifs from the Victorian age are in my opinion, just as beautiful as some of the tattoos I’ve seen in the modern days.
Sutherland MacDonald was the first man in London to open a tattoo studio, his being above a small Turkish bath house in the St James’s’ area of Westminster in 1894.
He is widely regarded as one of the finest artists and tattoo artists of his day-
I simply adore the fighting eagles on his chest, but what really sold the tattoo for me were the feathers floating around the design, giving it so much more movement.
There are hundreds of classic looking tattoos inspired by this intoxicating and highly influential era.
Apologies for the history lesson! It is as much for me as it is for you!!
What do you think of the modern ones, compared to the old ones?
Have a good night! xxx