Today tattooing is more socially acceptable than ever before. Even within the last 5 years, tattoos have had more coverage in the media, are more acceptable in the workplace, and have been less frowned upon by grandparents all over the world. But even 50 years ago, tattooed members of society were often seen as freaks and outsiders. Tattooing was practiced in the basements of barbershops, back alleys in port towns, and often circuses.
One of the first recorded tattooed circus acts was Jean Baptiste Cabri, a French deserter who had been extensively tattooed in the Marquesas Islands. He was exhibited in Russia and Europe, and told stories of the “savage” Marquesan natives. Before Cabri, the only examples of tattooed people that the public had seen would have been native people who were exhibited as “uncivilised barbarians”.
Throughout the 1800’s more western people were displayed in the circus and told similar stories to Cabri, and in 1842, James O’Connell became the first tattooed man to be displayed in the USA. He was exhibited in a museum which showed tattoos to a different crowd that it’s usual carnival and circus-going fans. In 1869 the East and West coasts of the USA were connected by rail, and the circus business exploded, which was great for tattooed people and their tattooers. Tattooing had been travelling around the UK for a few years, but in 1900 an exhibition in London pushed the public’s interest in tattooing even further. It is well documented that around this time many Monarchs were being tattooed.
Now that tattooing was becoming a more popular attraction around the world, people realised that they could make a living from being a tattooed circus act. Acts like Prince Constantine, La Belle Irene, and later The Great Omi were all tattooed with the intention of becoming circus acts. Many tattooed acts also learned to tattoo as well, and circuses were not just a place where you could see tattoos, but also get them too. Many artists like Stoney St.Clair, Jack Dracula and the Skuse family all worked or exhibited their work in the circus.
But as history has proven, human beings have always had a desire to see more extravagant and bizarre things. More and more people were becoming tattooed, and acts had to diversify in order to remain lucrative attractions. Tattooed fire eaters and sword swallowers, bearded women, dwarves and gymnasts were now more commonplace – it was no longer enough to simply be a tattooed person!
As tattooing became more accessible through the 20th Century, people became less and less impressed by tattooed sideshows, and eventually the acts died out. Tattoo practice became more technologically advanced and designs more artistic, and soon tattooing made it’s way into different parts of society. Women like Betty Broadbent, Cindy Ray and Justine Knight were able to make a career from being tattooed models, and often (in a similar way to tattooed circus acts of the 19th Century) learned to tattoo themselves. Cindy Ray was one of the most famous tattooed models in history. At the age of 19 a photographer paid for her to be be covered in tattoos, and over 50 years later you can still get a tattoo from her at her shop in Melbourne, Australia.
Nowadays tattoos are commonplace, and even the most conservative members of society are tattooed. In the last few years since tattooing has become accepted in society, many other body art forms that were first used by non-western societies have become increasingly popular for their “shock-factor”. Scarification, implants and other body modification practices are now seen as more “exotic” traditions than tattooing and have become popular amongst Westerners looking to shock or impress. How long will it be until nothing is as taboo as tattoos once were?