Ally tattoos a 415 design on Rocio Perez at Rebel Gallery in San Francisco's Bayview neighborhood during a 415 Day event at the shop. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
The recent popularity of tattoos is undeniable. A decade ago, about 20% of Americans had a tattoo. Now that number is up to about 30%. But just because their popularity is exploding doesn’t mean they're anything new.
Among Americans of European decent, tattoos were strongly associated with the military, starting around the time of the Civil War. In 1891, tattooer and inventor Samuel O'Reilly received a patent for the first electric tattoo machine. It modified Thomas Edison's electric pen, replacing the pen with a needle that stored ink.
In the early 20th century, tattoos were still largely seen on people outside of mainstream society: soldiers, sailors and some circus performers who showed off their heavily tattooed bodies to enthralled crowds.
And because tattoos were so connected to the military, the designs were often nostalgic. Soldiers would get the names of people they wanted to remember inked on their skin — mothers, daughters and girlfriends. Or, they'd get designs that over time came to symbolize specific things. The swallow, for example, meant that a sailor had traveled over 5,000 nautical miles.
This style of tattooing grew into what is now known as American traditional. It has two recognizable design features: First, the tattoos use bright, saturated colors like yellow, red and green, with black for shading. Primary colors stay clear and eye-catching over a person’s whole lifetime.
Second, American traditional tattoos have easily identifiable designs and motifs like hearts, skulls, anchors, roses and other kinds of flowers. Over time this visual vocabulary became common enough that tattoo artists would display the most popular designs in their shops, called "flash."
During World War II, soldiers poured into San Francisco before shipping out to the Pacific theater. Many stopped into local tattoo shops and inked familiar flash tattoos on themselves as reminders of home.
And during the war, American soldiers came in contact with people from all over the world. They would have seen tattoos on people in Japan and the Pacific Islands, and they may even have gotten more tattoos while deployed. When the war finally ended, Americans didn't want to return to the way things had been. Society was poised for some major social changes.
Counterculture movements make tattoos mainstream
"In the decades after World War II, and particularly after 1960, we see a spread of tattoo culture throughout popular culture in the U.S.," said Nina Jablonski, a professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University and author of the book "Skin: A Natural History." "It becomes not necessarily legitimized, but much more popular."
People were still getting American traditional flash tattoos, but now they were associated with countercultural movements.
It was during the explosion of interest in tattooing in the 1960s and '70s that a guy named Ed Hardy popped onto the scene. Hardy was first and foremost an artist. He graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute with a degree in printmaking in 1967 and was offered a scholarship to continue his studies at Yale.
One day he decided to get a tattoo. While he was there, his tattooer, a guy named Phil Sparrow, showed him a book that changed the course of his life.
"He brought a book out and it was Japanese bodysuit tattooing," said Mary Joy Scott, owner of Raven Eye Tattoo in San Francisco's Richmond district and a student of Hardy. "When Ed saw that, he decided to leave behind the whole art world and become a tattooer."
Japanese bodysuits are complex, subtly shaded and beautiful. They cover the body in a way Hardy had never seen before. He wanted to know more about how Japanese tattoo artists created those effects, so he turned down the Yale scholarship and moved to Japan to study for five months with tattoo master Kazuo Oguri, sometimes known as Horihide.
Over thousands of years, Japanese tattoo artists have developed techniques using a bamboo stick, called a tebori, that has several needles grouped on one end. The tebori allows the artist to create much more complicated designs than were common at that time in the U.S.
"There are multiple sharp needles that are dipped in some kind of a pigment and then tapped into the skin," said Jablonski, of Pennsylvania State University. "These needles are in groups so you can get lines, you can get dots. Very complex designs can be made."
With American traditional tattooing, a person collects individual designs over a lifetime, slowly covering the body. Japanese traditional, on the other hand, is about one idea or scene taking over the entire body.
Ed Hardy took the two styles and blended them. He opened a shop called Realistic Tattoo in San Francisco in 1974. He became known for custom tattoos — images designed specifically for a client, often referencing something personal in their life. Custom tattoos are often bigger than flash and complexly shaded like the Japanese style, although they don't often cover the majority of the body the way a Japanese bodysuit does.
People loved the idea of custom tattoos, even making special trips to the city to get inked by Hardy.
"Ed Hardy basically spoke to that interest in not only bringing these new design elements, but personalizing them," Jablonski said. "'I want to express what's in your heart, what you aspire to.'"