Tattooing Through the Ages

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….and even before written language. The word “tattoo” literally means “to tap”, and for over 5,000 years, tattooing was accomplished by ‘tapping’ pigment into the skin. Samuel O’Reilly would later invent and patent the first electric tattoo machine in 1891, a slightly revised version of an electric tattoo pen patented by Thomas Edison in 1877.

Samuel O’Reilly

After O’Reilly’s patent, Charles Wagner further revised the tattoo machine in 1904, and in 1929 Percy Waters released a revision that would not be challenged for 50 years.

Originally, tattoos were used in healing practices. We have proof of this, thanks to Ötzi (The Iceman) from the Neolithic times, who was found frozen, his skin intact and adorned with over 50 tattoos! These markings were found to be proven acupuncture points– an amazing find.

In Japan, the art of permanently marking the body for spiritual and decorative purposes is called ‘Irezumi‘. It is thought to be over 10,000 years old. From generation to generation, Japanese Master tattooers adopted their apprentices. After many years, when the Master deemed the student qualified, the student would take on his teacher’s name. If that master took another apprentice, both apprentices became brothers.

Traditional Japanese Irezumi

Compare that to tattooing equipment being sold on E-Bay and Amazon and training consisting of trial and error and You-Tube videos.

As popular as tattoos are today, many employers still have a policy against showing visible tattoos. Starbucks had a no tattoo policy until 2015, and still does not allow facial, neck or hand tattoos.

Pioneers like Bert Grimm, developed the tattoo from small drawings to sketching larger pieces. Lyle Tuttle’s “Chickens Today – Feathers Tomorrow” chest piece is a classic example of his style, which we now term “Old School” (and which is back with a vengeance).

Matt Gone, Mary Jane Haake & Lyle Tuttle

Tattooing is now morphing its artistic nature for reconstructive purposes (covering up scars, restoring facial features and the nipple/areola complex).

When I began tattooing in 1978, the only colors available were blue, red, green and black. —no brown or white and definitely not the wide array enjoyed now. Today we give veterans, accident victims and breast cancer survivors a new lease on life by combining centuries of knowledge and evolution – whether covering the skin with a figurative design, or blending in scars and restoring missing parts with skin tones.

Bert Grimm

The first breast cancer reconstruction I ever saw walked into Bert Grimm’s shop in Portland, Oregon in the early 1980’s. She wanted nipples and areolae. With our color selection I had no idea how to do that. Bert took a look and I recall him saying, “Hmmmm. Lips and Nips are the same…” He disappeared in back and came back with Sailor George’s recipe for restoring lips on mustard gas survivors.

I currently use the skin pigment recipes which were handed down to Bert Grimm by Sailor George. So the current pigment recipes I use are over 100 years old. We need to keep these roots alive.


2018-09-01T08:30:48-04:0029 Jan 2018|

About the Author:

A tattoo artist for nearly 40 years, Mary Jane Haake trained under the master, Bert Grimm, who bridged the breadth of the 20th Century and fed her the past through his endless accounts of people and places while he tattooed. In 1981 Mary Jane completed a fine arts degree at the Portland Art Museum School with a thesis in tattooing. That year she set up her studio, Dermigraphics, in downtown Portland in a building suitably called the Fine Arts Building. She has been there ever since. As an instructor and developer of topical anesthetics and antimicrobial products, she’s always looking ahead. Her demonstration and “bug hunt” classes are eye opening and timeless. As a public speaker Mary Jane has graced the stage at the Portland Art Museum, and traveled internationally, sharing her knowledge and absorbing art etched in canvas and skin. An award winning artist, this past year she won top awards from the National Tattoo Association, Alliance of Professional Tattooists and was listed as the Best Nipple Tattooist by the Willamette Week. Known for her custom tattoos, more recently she has offered her services through the medical community for breast cancer survivors and the Wounded Warrior Project. Her work with breast cancer survivors and older women opened her eyes to the need for natural organic products to heal and moisturize atrophied tissue, which leads to painful intimate encounters. Her “In the Pink” line of perles and oils is changing lives, just like a good tattoo.
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