That’s because tattoos have long-distance origins, like all things in this world, and so their origin stories have varied in different cultures. (Some of the most basic tattoo histories have come from the South and South Asia, specifically from people like Indian tattoo artist Bhupinder Bahadur.)
In the beginning, tattoos were often created by masters to mark slaves. But the most common custom in the South was to carve images of the living or dead into an animal’s skin, marking it as their slave. The most common tattoo-image in the South was a lion or unicorn.
By the mid 1860s, tattoos had become trendy. That was when American tattoo parlors like the San Francisco-based D. F. Gooden owned the first American tattoo artists. (Some tattooing artists in the South were slaves themselves.)
To sell their work in large numbers, tattoo artists also had to get creative. They needed to take into account the different racial makeup of the tattoo-painting community.
The more people who knew about the color blue (like, say, a black man), the better the chances of selling an image from their slave master that was red, white, and blue. If you tried to sell a black picture of your slave, they might try to sell you a picture of a blue man who looked like your slave. You would find that very rare images of blacks were extremely expensive. In the Northern states they were not sold in a way that would make profits because of their rarity.
One famous Southern tattoo artist named George M. Sable did a lot of work on slaves. As a result, most of the African-American tattoo artists who were practicing in the Southern states at the time were black, and so did a lot of them.
Many of the African-American tattoo artists took pride in that fact. Some did not think about the possibility that their customers might be trying to market them to the white supremacist society that was rapidly growing in the South. Many also did not think that the African-American culture had been stolen by someone else. They simply believed that it had been taken by slaves.
Many of the African-American tattoo artists in the South, including those in San Francisco, San Diego, and New Orleans, were from the North, but their tattoos were also inspired by their Southern neighbors in their work.
Tattoo artist George M. Sable is known for his work. (Photo from Flickr)
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