The History of Tattoos - Body Art in the 1960s – NAAMA Studios

June 1, 2022


The decade was a time of massive social and political change - and a formative period for what’s called 'the tattoo renaissance.'

Possibly the most significant decade of the century - the 1960s - was a time of massive social and political change, genre-defining music (enter: rock 'n’ roll) and the beginning of the hippy counterculture. There was a lot going on in the world: the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement - it all happened in the 60s. That’s a lot of inspiration for body art, but unfortunately, hepatitis also happened. The hepatitis scare was attributed partially to unregulated tattoo parlours with poor hygiene standards. But instead of introducing better regulation, some cities and states banned tattooing completely. “New York prohibited all tattooing in 1961 and the entire state of Massachusetts followed suit in 1962,” writes Anna Felicity Friedman, author of The World Atlas of Tattoos. Of course tattooing still happened — it just moved into people’s private living spaces or “parlours,” which is where the term tattoo “parlour” comes from.

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After the hepatitis scare, tattooing was made illegal in New York City and all tattoo shops were closed down, not to be reopened until 1997 - 36 years later.

By the late sixties, things started changing. Renewed interest in tattooing by artists sowed the seeds for what’s called ‘the tattoo renaissance.’ But now, instead of New York being at the centre of the tattoo world, it was California. Flower power central. Artist haven. These two forces combined and propelled the art form to the next level. “The surge in popularity for tattooing started in the California counter-cultural scene,” according to CNN. “In the late 1960s, a handful of artists with formal art school training began working and corresponding, mainly in Southern California, with established tattoo artists who were interested in pushing the boundaries of the art form,” writes Friedman. “Although traditional folk art-inspired tattooing has persisted, the dramatic new tattoo styles and techniques that came out of the tattoo renaissance spread across the United States to Europe and gradually beyond, forming the foundations for the great diversity of global tattooing today.” The tattoo renaissance was fuelled by feelings of rebellion and liberation. And since this perfectly aligned with the zeitgeist of the sixties – anti-Vietnam sentiment, pro women’s lib and civil rights – this brought body art closer to the mainstream. As a result, tattooing began to attract new social groups: musicians, biker gangs, artists, members of the counterculture – and even middle class young people.

According to sociologist Katherine Irwin, “middle-class people who sought out tattoos but were fearful of their association with lower-class 'deviance' made that choice not as an expression of rebelliousness, but rather as a way to embrace independence. Getting that dagger on the biceps or a shamrock on the shoulder wasn’t a form of rebellion - it was an announcement of liberation.” “Although most of society still saw tattoos as a trend of the criminal class, young people were rejecting traditional values and demanding social equalities for all,” according to London tattoo shop Cloak and Dagger. “Women’s rights became a big movement of the 1960s and women everywhere were beginning to express their rights and opinions through the adoption of the new birth control pill, burning their bras in protest of being controlled by men and the government, and with tattoos displaying their personal tastes and beliefs.”

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In significant numbers, people were starting think differently, to challenge the system and dominant ideology. Tattoos were a natural way to express these beliefs, and demonstrate group and political identity. “The 1960s counter-culture movement created activist-minded young adults who wanted to permanently memorialise their radical and transgressive nature via tattoos,” writes Friedman. “Women, in particular, began to get tattooed in greater numbers, spurred on by artists such as Lyle Tuttle, who tattooed female celebrities and actively promoted the art form to new audiences via media appearances.” But it wasn’t just the subject matter and clientele that was changing – during the tattoo renaissance, the art of body art itself was changing. It became a glorious melting pot of different influences. “A reignited interest in Japanese tattooing united many of the artists in the tattoo renaissance,” Friedman adds. Sailor Jerry was a seminal force – he introduced up-and-coming artists like Don Ed Hardy to his unique fusion of Japanese designs and traditional Americana – and this was the jumping off point for the decade’s pioneering new designs. During the 60s, San Francisco-based Lyle Tuttle was one of the most prominent and celebrated tattoo artists — he was none other than Janis Joplin’s tattoo artist in 1970 — but it wasn’t just who he tattooed that was influential. Tuttle himself became famous “by catering to celebrities while helping to move tattooing… from the 'back alley' into mainstream acceptability,” according to the NY Times. He was seen as a “spokesman for tattooing” at a time when the industry needed strong voices.

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“The 60s were a time of cultural upheaval and the tattoo industry reflected that rebellious spirit. Patriotic tattoos declined as most people did not support the Vietnam War, and cause-specific tattoos were seen on people raging against all sorts of injustice. The peace sign tattoo soared during this embattled era.” — InkBox

“The breakthrough that (Lyle Tuttle) made was in people’s minds, tearing down prejudice, and that’s kind of a beautiful thing to do with your life.” - NY Times. “Between the hippie movement of the late ’60s and the feminist campaigns and rights movements, the tattoo industry saw itself in the midst of a rebirth of sorts. The industry, which had once been mostly reserved for men, now saw an expansion of its client base, opening the potential for new customers by 50 per cent. In addition to the female population being socially able to wear body ink, the hippies of the world began following their free-will concepts right into tattoo parlours, getting peace signs, flowers, and other such symbols marked onto their bodies in celebration of their ideals,” according to Tattoo.

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While the popularity of tattooing was taking off, 1967 also brought another milestone in tattoo history: the first laser removal treatment. Dr. Leon Goldman successfully removed a tattoo for the first time in history, using 694 Ruby laser and YAG laser.