Upon entering the circus circuit in the 1870s, heavily tattooed performer Captain Costentenus brought an elaborate backstory: adorned with 388 tigers, elephants, and other exotic creatures, Costentenus claimed he had been kidnapped in Burma and that his tattoos were results of daily three-hour sessions of forcible tattooing by Chinese Tatars. The story was most likely a lie; by that point, heavily tattooed circus freaks had become extraordinarily popular attractions, and Costentenus himself claimed to command a salary of $1,000 per week (before inflation) at his career’s peak. More likely, Costentenus had sought out his tattoos from a professional American tattooer as a base investment that promised high returns.
Fantastical tales such as these are littered throughout the history of American tattooing, from navy sailors and whalers sailing as far as the South Pacific to accounts of big personalities and the shady practices of portside tattoo parlors. Thanks to post-war governmental crackdowns and efforts to improve tattooing’s reputation in the ’60s and ’70s from tattooers like Sailor Jerry and Don Ed Hardy, tattoo shops since cleaned up their act. Now Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy flash adorn accessories, apparel, and most notably rum in addition to skin, introducing tattooing imagery to a wider audience than ever before. Read on to see how tattooing went from being the art of the sailor, administered with India ink and cleaned with whale sperm, to what it is today—and how, throughout it all, American classic tattoos have endured.