Tattooing Sailors After the American Revolution


American tattoo folklore includes the sailor as the embodiment of American Traditional tattoos. Here’s a brief history from Wikipedia:

In the period shortly after the American Revolution, to avoid impressment by British Navy ships, sailors used government issued protection papers to establish their American citizenship. However, many of the descriptions of the individual described in the seamen's protection certificates were so general, and it was so easy to abuse the system, that many impressment officers of the Royal Navy simply paid no attention to them. "In applying for a duplicate Seaman's Protection Certificate in 1817, James Francis stated that he 'had a protection granted him by the Collector of this Port on or about 12 March 1806 which was torn up and destroyed by a British Captain when at sea.'"[44]

One way of making them more specific and more effective was to describe a tattoo, which is highly personal as to subject and location, and thus use that description to precisely identify the seaman. As a result, many of the official certificates also carried information about tattoos and scars, as well as any other specific identifying information. This also perhaps led to an increase and proliferation of tattoos among American seamen who wanted to avoid impressment. During this period, tattoos were not popular with the rest of the country. "Frequently the "protection papers" made reference to tattoos, clear evidence that individual was a seafaring man; rarely did members of the general public adorn themselves with tattoos."[45]

"In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, tattoos were as much about self-expression as they were about having a unique way to identify a sailor's body should he be lost at sea or impressed by the British navy. The best source for early American tattoos is the protection papers issued following a 1796 congressional act to safeguard American seamen from impressment. These proto-passports catalogued tattoos alongside birthmarks, scars, race, and height. Using simple techniques and tools, tattoo artists in the early republic typically worked on board ships using anything available as pigments, even gunpowder and urine. Men marked their arms and hands with initials of themselves and loved ones, significant dates, symbols of the seafaring life, liberty poles, crucifixes, and other symbols."[46]

Sometimes, to protect themselves, the sailors requested not only that the tattoos be described, but that they would also be sketched out on the protection certificate as well. As one researched said, "Clerks writing the documents often sketched the tattoos as well as describing them."

By1891, New York tattooer Samuel O'Reilly patented the first electric tattoo machine, a modification of Thomas Edison's electric pen, as seen here: