Tattooing is the art of inserting pigment under the dermis layer of the skin to create a decorative, symbolic, or pictorial design, and on National Tattoo Day, July 17, we set time aside to learn more about the tattooing process and its societal importance and history. If you don’t have a tattoo, you’re likely to know someone who does, and if you’ve asked them how they knew at the time when they were getting inked whether they would still want that design on their skin years or decades later, you may have just gotten a peculiar look instead of an explanation. There is certainly a fraternal connection between people who bear tattoos, a connection that those without ink can never really understand. We asked one correspondent to try to address this phenomenon, and he said, “Tattoos began as a ceremony, and they’re still kind of like that. Once you’re under an artist’s needle, it’s a little like a religious experience. It’s like the ‘Aha moment’ people talk about having in business life. It illuminates something you didn’t see before.”
History of National Tattoo Day
National Tattoo Day has only been celebrated for the past few years, but the art of tattooing has been around for millennia. Archaeological evidence shows that the ancient Egyptians practiced tattooing and the ‘Iceman,’ or Ötzi, the natural mummy discovered in glacial ice in the Alps in 1991 and carbon-dated at 3250 B.C., bore 61 tattoos. Ancient tattooing was most widely practiced among the Austronesian-speaking peoples as far back as 1500 B.C. They practiced tattooing traditions including facial tattoos that some modern scientists allege were connected to headhunting among warring indigenous tribes. Fast forward to 17th-century Europe, ‘painted’ individuals were sometimes abducted from their native countries and put on public display, the European abductors collecting money for each viewing. The explorer William Dampier took his tattooed slave Jeoly, known as the ‘Painted Prince,’ on an extensive tour to show off and capitalize on Jeoly’s tattoos.
The first tattoo shop to open in the U.S. belonged to Martin Hildebrandt, who started his business in New York City in 1846 and was sought after by Union and Confederate soldiers alike. By 1975, there were still only 40 tattoo artists operating in the U.S., but by 1980 that number had ballooned to 5,000. Today, tattoo shops are in every city and medium-sized town in the country, and on July 17, we honor their proprietors’ contribution to American culture.
National Tattoo Day timeline
A pictograph is made of the facial snake tattoo and bird tattoo signifying freedom on the person of the King of the Maquas (the Mohawk tribe), and the image sets many imaginations ablaze.
Britain’s Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) gets a tattoo on a trip to Jerusalem, inspiring members of New York’s high society to “keep up with the Royals” and get body art.
The first electric rotary tattoo machine is invented, inspired by Thomas Edison’s electric pen.
New York mayor Rudy Giuliani lifts the ban on tattooing in New York City, a ban in place since a hepatitis outbreak in 1961 was blamed on a tattoo artist.
National Tattoo Day FAQs
When is the best time to get a tattoo?
Despite National Tattoo Day being in mid-July, many experts recommend — since during summer months your skin is rougher from wind, sun, and activity — that you get your ink during the winter for a smoother surface, if you will.
How much does a tattoo generally cost?
This is an area where you really do get what you pay for, meaning, the more you spend, the better quality image you’ll get. A word to the wise: never haggle over the price a tattoo artist quotes; it’s considered disrespectful to their craft.
How much does getting ink hurt?
There’s a common — and erroneous — idea that under the needle you’ll be gritting your teeth and trying not to scream or cry. On the contrary — yes, the feeling is hot and scratchy, but the pain level is certainly manageable.
National Tattoo Day Activities
Get a tattoo
It’s a perfect day to take the plunge if you’ve been thinking about getting body art. Just make sure you do your research to find a good shop and a good artist, and be well-rested the day of.
Swop your pencil for a tattoo gun
If you’re a visual artist — the kind that doesn’t do a lot of erasing — and you’ve been mulling over investing in a tattoo machine and using a few friends as guinea pigs, National Tattoo Day is the ideal time to start. Just make sure you’ve completed your apprenticeship first.
Check out ink examples online
Some tattoos are just plain breathtaking. Others, like misspelled messages, can be quite humorous. On National Tattoo Day, surf around to see what you can find in terms of body art. Use the hashtag #NationalTattooDay to share what you find!
FIVE AMAZING FACTS ABOUT TATTOO TYPES
Tattoo artists using black ink achieve lighter tones for shading their images by diluting the ink with distilled water.
Advances in technology have given tat artists the ability to use super-slim lines, aiding especially in the creation of portrait tattoos.
Watercolor tats, so named because they replicate the splashes of color and shade gradations of the brush-and-paper kind, often fade because of the relatively small amounts of ink used to make them.
The growing trendiness of new-school tattoos — which are inspired by cartoons and anime and are not ‘modern’ per se — is a resurgence of their popularity during the ’80s and ’90s.
The meaning behind a red koi tattoo is love and energy, while a black koi represents the bearer’s having overcome a major challenge.
Why We Love National Tattoo Day
It celebrates art
A few artists in any medium can achieve the sublime, but body art is especially beautiful when the image and the ‘human canvas’ achieve a certain synergy. Tattoos that approach perfection like that are the ones we can’t stop looking at.
It stimulates the mind
It’s inevitable: at some point in time, you will contemplate what image you would choose if you were to get inked. It’s easy to while away hours, imagining what design you would want. Favorite comic? Religious icon? Celtic knot? The possibilities are limitless.
It’s of historic significance
Considering how deep and rich the history of tattooing is, there’s always more to learn. A simple web search could lead to a captivating and enriching bit of reading and viewing. We believe in keeping sharp like that!
National Tattoo Day dates