When European explorers first arrived in the New World, they discovered that tattooing was a large part of the stone-age culture practiced by Native Americans. Common among most tribes were geometric patterns and dots that were applied to celebrate the individual's passage into puberty. Many tribes, including the Sioux Indians believed that a tatoo was necessary in order to gain passage into the other world.
After an almost two thousand year absence from popular culture, the phenomena of tattooing re-emerged after explorers brought tales of it home after they had sighted examples of it in the North and South Americas.
Tattooing was also very popular among sailors who, from the 1600's to the 1940's tattooed a chicken on one foot and a pig on the other to protect them from death by drowning. During World War II, the big symbol that protected sailors from drowning were twin propellers (one tattooed on each buttock) meant to symbolically propel you to the shore.
Images of bluebirds inked on the chest were often used to mark the number of miles a sailor had spent a sea. Each bluebird represented 5,000 miles logged at sea. If a sailor had sailed south past the equator he sometimes got a picture of Neptune tattooed n his leg. If he crossed the international dateline, a sailor owned the right to wear a tattoo of a dragon. A hula girl tattoo meant the sailor had been to Honolulu. Female underwear and stockings tattooed on the sailor's body meant that he had been on more than one cruise.
A sailor's bluebird by Tim Hanan http://www.artfultattoo.dyns.net
Chatham Square in New York City became the epic-center for tattoos in pre-civil war days in the United States. Sailors, gang members and low-lifes (who often boasted elaborate tattoos on their torsos and forearms) frequented this area known for its beer halls and sex parlors.
Sailors passed the long hours at sea "pricking" designs into their own skin or that of their mates. These designs were a mix of patriotic and protective images. Often gunpowder was mixed into the ink, as gunpowder was though to possess magical powers of longevity and protection. The seamen of that day were familiar with tattoos because of their extensive travel. They had seen the dragons of the China, the Christian charms and evil eyes of the people and the highly detailed designs of Edo and Yokohama worn by the citizens of Japan. Sailors bearing these exotic designs, passed through the port of New York everyday, greatly influencing and broadening the very concept of "tattoo" itself.
A classic Sailor's anchor by Sean Donovan www.tattoosbysean.com
With the outbreak of the Civil War, thousands of men from New York were conscripted into the Union Army. The demand for patriotic designs grew tremendously during that war and thousands of individuals were tattooed on the battlefield. Favorite designs often included depictions of major battles complete with sky and landscape.
A reproduction of a civil war tattoo courtesy of Rueben "Rue" Kayden www.tattoorue.com
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