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Published Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Victorian Tattoo Craze

Southerland MacDonald's work, from the Strand Magazine.

The British empire in the 1890s spanned the globe from Canada to Africa, India, Australia and chunks of Asia. Stories abounded in the popular British press of explorers meeting Maori people with tattoos ‘chiseled’ into their faces, of the painted ‘red men’ of North America, and of rough ‘gunpowder’ tattoos carved into the arms of their own sailors. These trends were considered primitive and low class. The Hori tattooists of Japan, on the other hand, were not so easily dismissed.

The work of artists like Hori Chyo of Yokohama and Hori Yasu of Kyoto (‘Hori’ refers to a traditional Japanese tattooist) included color and detailed shading. It was more than just tattooing, it was fine art. By the 1890s, Chyo had tattooed aristocracy all over Europe, including the Tsar of Russia (To be fair, the tattoo was done when he was still a prince), several British lords and ladies, ship’s captains, Members of Parliament, and a lot of very rich people.

Just how fine an art was it? At one point, Chyo was engaged to work in the United States by a millionaire named Bandel, for 3 years at an annual salary of 2400 gold sovereigns. That’s $763,000 a year in today’s money. (Japan Weekly Mail, in 1897, puts the figure at the equivalent of $533,000 a year, so there’s some wiggle room)

Into this world of high class, and high priced tattooing came Sutherland Macdonald, an artist and one-time telegraph operator who fell in love with tattoos as an art form and who would be known as the greatest tattoo artist of his time.

While Chyo was noted for using the color brown in addition to red and black, giving his work a 3rd dimension of color, MacDonald experimented on his own skin for years to come up with compounds for blue, green, yellow and lavender. He also designed and patented an electric tattoo pen that used a single needle for outline work. For interior color and shading, MacDonald used the same ivory handled Japanese needles as Chyo and Yasu.

MacDonald was the first tattooist to open a studio in England. It was located on Jermyn Street, which was – and still is – famous

Another of MacDonald's body pieces from The Strand Magazine.

for gentlemen’s clothing and shirt makers. According to Strand magazine, the studio featured a divan with elegant cushions, “gaily decorated” Japanese needles, a hypodermic needle (An injection of cocaine was common to dull the pain of heavy tattoo work, both at Chyo’s studio and MacDonald’s), and the luxurious, for its time, electric light and stove.

But by far the biggest attraction in MacDonald’s studio were his portfolio albums. While Chyo’s work was traditional Japanese, MacDonald had produced art in many styles from his travels around the world, and also reproduced very British activities and subjects, like fox hunting, falconry, and heraldry. In fact, regimental badges for officers, and coats of arms for the aristocracy seem to be staples in his work. Other popular designs included butterflies on ladies shoulders and “sayings in Oriental characters” (In case you thought kanji tattoos were a new thing).

It’s hard to imagine how widely MacDonald’s work circulated. According to Strand magazine, he had literally done thousands of tattoos by 1897, and Country Life magazine said his work was to be found on people of every nation on earth. Illustrious clients included the Duke of York, the Tsarevich of Russia (The heir to the Tsar, if I understand my Russian titles correctly, which I may not), and the “Imperial and Royal members of Russian, German, Danish and Spanish courts,” according to Country Life. A director of the railways got a locomotive engine on his arm. An American millionaire paid for several weeks of work done be done on his yacht.

For the notably rich, a truly unique tattoo was possible. Many of MacDonald’s clients purchased not only the tattoo, but the copyright for the artwork itself, so that no one, not even MacDonald, could reproduce the work.

Coats of Arms and School insignia were all the rage for University students and military personnel in the 1890s.

Both Chyo and MacDonald benefitted from the explosion of another fad: Photography. The first celluloid film had just recently been developed and photography had experienced a huge burst in popularity and affordability. For the first time, photographs could be included in magazines as well, making publicity for something like tattoos possible. Clients at MacDonald’s studio could feast their eyes not just on drawings, but on actual photographs of completed tattoos.

A June 16, 1897 article in Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality called tattooing both a “fashion” and a “fever”, which had taken hold of high society. In that interview, MacDonald said that he did not want the art to become too popular, because then it might be considered vulgar. “Meantime,” they wrote, “the artistic tattooist found his clients among the best people.”

During his lifetime, MacDonald got his wish. Tattooing wouldn’t become ‘vulgar’ until the early 20th century, when the electric tattoo gun got an upgrade that made the Japanese needles obsolete. After that, the prices came down and average people could afford to have more work done, and once average people started getting high quality work themselves the fad for tattoos died out among the wealthy and the elite.

Before the fad faded, MacDonald’s work would be eclipsed by his own student, George Burchett, aka “The King of Tattooists” whose clientele included several kings and the aristocracy across Europe.