My Tattoo - Tells a Story
Many of my coworkers and friends seem to be celebrating midlife by getting tattooed these days. The origin of the art and word Tattoo is usually traced to the Tahitian tatu or tatau, which means to mark or strike. "Tattoo" is almost universal and is the commonly used term for injecting ink beneath the skin. It is the word that speakers of other languages use most often even when there are native words that mean the same thing. When I ask friends why they were tattooed, some say because they always thought it was cool, especially a little tattoo in some hide-a-way private place; others because they admire the artistic skills that today’s tattooists demonstrate and still others who say “They just did it.” They are following a very old tradition; the 3300 BC "iceman" discovered a few years ago frozen in the Tyrol was tattooed.
I’ve also noticed that people tattooed host a well-deserved sense of pride about their tattoos. They take hours to complete and dollars to have performed. The Japanese take it a step further and use two different words for the act of being marked. If the person is getting a traditional design applied using traditional methods, they respectfully use the term irezumi, while any other marking is simply called a "tattoo." The western world became interested in tattoos during the late 1700s when the people of London welcomed Captain Cook and his stories of the South Pacific. They were anxious to see the art and artifacts he brought back and on one trip he brought a heavily tattooed Polynesian named Omai. He was a sensation in London. Soon, the upper- class was getting small tattoos in discreet places. For a short time tattooing became vogue.
Tattooing was kept from becoming more widespread because it was a slow and painstaking procedure. Each puncture of the skin to apply the ink was done by hand. That changed in 1891 when Samuel O’Reilly patented the first electric tattooing machine. It was based on Edison's electric pen which punctured paper with a needle point. Tattooing fell on hard times and about 1908 cosmetic tattooing became a popular blush for cheeks, colored lips, and eyeliner, which is still popular today. WWI changed the business where people wanted to use symbols of bravery and wartime icons.
Life magazine estimated in 1936 that 10 million Americans or approximately 6% of the population had at least one tattoo. A Harris Poll, done in 2003, nearly tripled those numbers and estimated that 16% of Americans had one or more tattoos. A 2006 study done by The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that 24% of Americans between 18 and 50 are tattooed. Lately, tattoo designs have a new twist: WWII-era scenes. The WWII images tattooed today vary from a well-executed monochrome portrayal of a fighter aircraft or bomber to elaborate, multi-color multi-figured artist conceptions of a battle. Aircraft seem to be in high demand but there are extensive ground war battle scenes, tanks and ships adorning various body parts of proud owners.
Seeing a beautiful rendition of a B-26 bomber or a squadron of fighters full sleeve tattoo walk by can be pretty impressive. By the way, a sleeve tattoo basically refers to any type of tattoo that completely covers the skin in a variety of lengths, a full sleeve tattoo being from the shoulder blade all the way down to the wrist and a half sleeve from the shoulder to the elbow. Depending upon the design, colors and degree of custom art, the tattoo owner can have invested a tidy sum in their new WWII inspired artwork. A person often spends $150 an hour and some designs routinely require six to ten hours to complete.
I asked a couple of proud owners of newly acquired WWII inspired tattoos why they chose the design. I was especially interested since if you tripled their age they still would not have lived during the war years. Their sincere answer was that they wanted to honor their grandfather or a special uncle. One blogger said, “I've always been fascinated with tattoos - from my childhood days watching a WWII-era mermaid dance on my Uncle Ray's arm.”
I started to wonder about vintage WWII-era tattoos and the men and maybe the women who acquired them; why did tattoos become fashionable during the war, what designs were popular, was the number of military personnel with tattoos exaggerated and what do the owners think about them now? I had to look back to WWI too, trying to understand if the reminiscing about past conflicts might be something repeated now and fueling the latest trend in tattoos.
In the late 1930’s, across the country, tattooists opened shops in areas that would support them, namely cities with military bases close by, particularly naval bases. Tattoos had become known as travel markers and you could tell where a person had been by their tattoos. As tattoos became associated with the military, sailors and soldiers illustrated their allegiance to their country and their women with body art, wearing the names of their units, ships and divisions proudly. I quickly found that during WWII men in the Navy and Marines were much more likely to have tattoos than aviators or Army personnel.
A WWII Sailor taking account of a new tattoo. A colleague who worked in surgery and saw lots of tattoos on WWII era servicemen said, “Marines quite often had the Marine corps emblem (globe, fouled anchor). It seems like the Navy guys were fond of women, clad and otherwise, for their tattoos, with many having a Navy emblem also. Don't recall seeing a lot of Army or AAF types with tattoos.” One friend told the story that his Navy veteran father had his serial number and an anchor tattooed on his arm. Seems he got the idea after seeing what happened to his shipmates after a battle. The "MOM" tattoo became popular during WWII as well as the "death before dishonor" dagger piercing the skin image. Some Navy personnel tattooed their forearms with the ports of call they visited and had wrist 'bracelets' on the upper arm with a girl’s name or initials that were special and on the lower leg the initials of all the girls they 'had.' Many US sailors have a palm tree or hula girl from Hawaii on their arms.
Tattoos were not reserved for just Americans. A WWII soldier in the 3rd British Infantry Division fully expected to be killed going into action on D-Day. He was Jewish and before going into action he had the Star of David tattooed onto his arm. When he was asked about the tattoo after the war he said that if he were killed he “Wished it to be known that he had fought and died as a Jew.” Many British WWI vets had their regimental badge tattooed on their arms and chest. Sailors in the Royal Navy had tattoos of palm trees tattooed for each of their Mediterranean cruises in WWII.
Talking with a surgeon/historian acquaintance about tattoos he mentioned that they were popular with men in the regular army during WWI. Conducting some research he checked the personal details of police officers who died and who had been in WWI. The police had recruited ex-servicemen, and of the 20 men’s records he looked at, eight were ex-regular army, and one ex-navy. Of those nine, seven had tattoos, compared with none of the 13 men who had been employed in only civilian life.
There is no doubt; tattoos have been popular in the west for centuries. During the two world wars military personnel boosted the romance surrounding a tattoo. Based on the recent polls, people sporting tattoos have grown by the millions. The new trend of WWII-era tattoo designs seems unprecedented. They have become a sophisticated art form for the specialized collector. Today’s spectacular WWII-inspired tattoos are not for everyone but they have brought a new level of design to the palm trees and hula girls of yesteryear. Gravity may change the canvas over time, but today, when you see one of the new WWII-era inspired images, stop and enjoy the artistic interpretation.
John Cilio An un-tattooed Freelance writer and aviation historian. Comments: Questions@vintageflyer.com