Tattooing was practiced by soldiers on both sides of the war, and for similar reasons.
The war didn’t just introduce millions of American men to tattooing while they were in service, as you’d expect. The American Navy actually caused a big spike in tattooing before these men had even joined the forces:
“As military enlistment escalated prior to World War II, the American Navy caused another inadvertent boom in tattooing,” according to Collectors Weekly. “Decades before, the U.S. government had issued a pamphlet with a passage requiring incoming recruits to fix any obscene tattoos, which primarily meant drawings of nude women. During the ’40s, this passage was a godsend for tattoo artists, as young men scrambled to censor their bodily markings so they could enlist.”
Sailor Jerry became particularly influential during the war. Based in Hawaii, where Pearl Harbour was bombed, his signature designs “combining stylistic elements from Japanese, American and European techniques,”writes Collectors Weekly. It is in Hawaii where he found a whole new audience and officially went mainstream.
Once WWII was in full swing, “millions of clean-cut American men had the — uh, opportunity — to visit the South Pacific, just near Honolulu, where former-Navy- man-turned-tattoo-artist Norman Collins (a.k.a. Sailor Jerry) slung ink at his shop,” according to Refinery 29.
Tattoos were also a common way of branding prisoners and identifying those who’d been captured. The Germans used “identifying marks from specific prisoner camps or specific types of prisoners,” writes WWII Ink. “Many of the tattoos used would be numbers or letters. This will determine the race or nationality of an individual, and in many cases, that particular individual’s rank.”
“In 1948, with occupying US forces driving demand for Japanese tattoos, Japan finally lifted the centuries-old ban — but only for foreigners. Still, for the first time in modern history, Japanese tattoo artists were allowed to work without fear of prosecution,” according to History of Yesterday.
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