Civic Center, 2 Park Street
Potsdam, NY 13676
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Flesh  & Ink: Tattoo Histories

Curated by Dr. Laura Desmond and Potsdam Historian Mimi Van Deusen

William Dampher is responsible for re-introducing tattooing to the west. He was a sailor and explorer who traveled the South Seas. In 1691 he brought to London a heavily tattooed Polynesian named Prince Giolo, Known as the Painted Prince. He was put on exhibition , a money making attraction, and became the rage of London. It had been 600 years since tattoos had been seen in Europe and it would be another 100 years before tattooing would make it mark in the West.

In the late 1700s, Captain Cook made several trips to the South Pacific. The people of London welcomed his stories and were anxious to see the art and artifacts he brought back. Returning form one of this trips, he brought a heavily tattooed Polynesian named Omai. He was a sensation in London. Soon, the upper- class were getting small tattoos in discreet places. For a short time tattooing became a fad.

What kept tattooing from becoming more widespread was its slow and painstaking procedure. Each puncture of the skin was done by hand the ink was applied. In 1891, Samuel O'Reilly patented the first electric tattooing machine. It was based on Edison's electric pen which punctured paper with a needle.

In many industries apprenticeships are necessary to learn a skill or trade, and to this day many artists search out master artists to teach them a trade. It is common to see apprenticeships among jewelers, glass blowers, barbers, and tattoo artists. An apprenticeship can take anywhere from six months to a few years; the length of the apprenticeship period is up to the artist you are working under and the skills you are trying to learn.

From the 1920s until the 1990s, in order to get into the tight knit tattoo industry you had to complete an apprenticeship. The artists who had paved the road before you would protect the industry and it wasn’t uncommon for a group of tattooists to prevent non-apprenticed people—who were not part of a studio—from tattooing. This was known as the “Broken Hands Can’t Tattoo” clause. Today people looking to get into the industry don’t have to worry about such extreme repercussions from breaking the “unspoken rules” surrounding apprenticeship.

Traditionally in the tattoo industry there have been many unspoken rules and industry secrets that most people could not learn on their own. Needle making, pigment mixing, machine building, machine tuning, sanitation, and machine setup are just a few examples of insider knowledge that well-rounded tattooists should know. A lot of these one-time secrets are no longer necessary: tattoo supplies are publicly available, and needles and ink can be purchased at low cost.

Most artists who are willing to take an apprentice will require that the person already has a background in art and has a portfolio of their work. During the apprenticeship the apprentice is expected to work at the shop, cleaning, talking to clients, and refining their artwork. Most apprenticeships are un-paid; the skills that are taught are worth the time in the long run. To this day most professional tattoo shops will not hire artists who have not completed an apprenticeship; this is part of the tradition of the industry.