An Evolving Artform


Frank Deburdg was tattooed by Samuel O' Reilly at his Bowery studio (source:


It’s amazing to see how the transformation of tattooing has integrated itself so deeply into American culture since its birth in New York City in 1846.

In 1936 a December issue of Life Magazine revealed that one out of every ten persons in the U.S was tattooed in whole or in part, which translated to about 10 million Americans or 6 percent of the population. This article also revealed that during 1936 there were only about 60 established tattoo artists throughout all of the United States. Today, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene there are currently approximately 1,900 licensed tattoo artists in New York City alone. According to a 2006 survey conducted by Pew Research, 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have at least one tattoo and 36 percent of those between the ages of 18 to 25 reports having a tattoo. A report by the Food and Drug Administration estimated that as many as 45 million Americans currently have tattoos.

The birth of tattooing and a German immigrant named Martin Hildebrant go hand in hand. In 1846 Hildebrant set up New York’s first tattoo shop on Oak Street in lower Manhattan. Another man liable for the integration of tattooing into American society is a New Yorker named Samuel O’ Reilly who opened up a tattoo shop at 11 Chatham Square in the Chinatown area of the Bowery in 1875. During this time, the tattooing that men like Hildebrant and O’ Reilly did was done by hand. The tattooing instrument used by these men was a set of needles attached to a wooden handle. The tattoo artists would dip these needles in ink and move their hand rhythmically up and down, puncturing the skin two to three times per second. Tattooing by hand was an extremely slow practice that took years of experience to perfect, even for the greatest tattoo artists of that time.

This manual way of tattooing all changed when O’ Reilly revolutionized tattooing in 1891 with his invention of the first electric

Samuel O' Reilly's patent drawing for his tattoo machine (source:

tattoo machine, which was a modification of Thomas Edison’s perforating pen. This invention transformed tattooing into a quicker, more attractive process even though the pain one goes through to get a tattoo will never dissipate. Modern tattoo machines today puncture the skin between 50 to 3,000 times per minute. The needle penetrates the skin by a millimeter and deposits a drop of ink into the skin with each puncture. It sounds like a grueling process, I know, but that doesn’t stop anyone who truly wants a tattoo. It didn’t stop me, even though I was biting holes into the collar of my shirt to ease the pain during a four hour long tattoo on my ribcage.

There are many New Yorkers just like me who wait until their 18th birthday comes along, because that is the legal age to get tattooed in New York City and many other places throughout the U.S as well. According to a U.S News and World Report article there are an estimated 20,000 tattoo parlors operating in the United States, with new parlors opening up everyday. This exemplifies how the popularity of tattooing has grown compared to the 1930’s when there were only about 60 tattoo artists throughout the entire country.

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