History on their Skin – Part 1: Eight Historical Figures with Ink

Upon discovering the mummified remains of Ötzi the Iceman in 1991, there was no denying that tattoos had been around for a long time. The over 5,000-year-old Iceman had over sixty-one tattoos. Though tattoos have recently been considered taboo in many religions and among many people, most of the ancient and modern world has no problems with tattoos. From ancient Asians to ancient Egyptians to the Samoans, tattooing was always prevalent. As Christianity spread, the tradition of tattooing became more and more taboo. Tattoos became as extinct as the people who practiced the art. Tattooing came back into modern culture in the 1770s when Captain Cook and his men came into contact with several societies that still practiced tattooing and would become even more prevalent upon the advent of the electric tattoo machine in 1891.

Though it wouldn’t be until the end of the 20th century that tattoos were slightly more acceptable, that didn’t stop many historical figures from getting ink.

8. William Lithgow (1582-1645)

Renowned traveler and author (and alleged spy) documented his travels. Lithgow claimed that he had walked 36,000 miles during his lifetime of journeys and some of those steps led him to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in 1612. Lithgow joined countless other religious pilgrims who got a Jerusalem cross tattoo to commemorate the voyage to the Holy Lands.

7. John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865)
Though John Wilkes Booth is famous for shooting President Abraham Lincoln, the initials (his initials) tattooed on his hand were the identifying factor used to ID his body.

6. Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)
American poet Dorothy Parker was known for her political stances as much as her acclaimed literary works. She was also known for getting a star tattoo on a night out in New York City.

5. George Orwell (1903-1950)
Continuing the trend of tattooed writers, dystopian author George Orwell was said to have received the blue dot tattoos on his knuckles during a stint with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma in the 1930s.

4. R.H. Macy (1822-1877)
Macy’s has always been a higher-end department store chain whose flagship store is in the middle of Manhattan. The original Macy’s store sold dry goods in the 1800s in Massachusetts, but R.H. Macy learned from his mistakes and moved to New York City. The business began to grow, and they changed their original store emblem. In 1858, Macy’s emblem was a rooster; but in 1862, the infamous red star appeared. Why a random red star? The red star originated on the arm of the store’s originator, R.H. Macy. During his adolescent years as a sailor, Macy acquired a red star tattoo on his forearm.

3. Thomas Edison (1847-1931)
American inventor Thomas Edison not only holds the record for the highest number of patents earned by one person, but one of his creations was the inspiration for Samuel O’Reilly’s electric tattoo machine. But not only was his inspiration for the tattoo machine itself; Edison had ink. Edison had five dots arranged in the shape of a cross, commonly called a quincunx.

2. Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd (1904-1934)
While I reluctantly add another criminal to our list, documentation shows that notorious bank robber and FBI’s public enemy #1 had ink. As shown in his 1933 FBI Wanted poster, Charles Floyd had a Nurse in Rose Tattoo. Legendary tattoo artist Bert Grimm tattooed the piece without realizing it was Pretty Boy Floyd himself in his tattoo chair. The piece was done so well that Floyd’s arresting US Marshall came to Grimm after the arrest to get the same design.

1. Janis Joplin (1943-1970)

The Texas-born musician is one of the most recognizable names in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and the dubbed queen of rock ‘n’ roll paved the way for countless female musicians. Her influence was not just through her voice. The charismatic spirit also led the way for a resurgence of accepting tattoos. The bluesy rock singer had a wristlet and small heart tattoo on her left breast done by world-renowned San Francisco-based tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle. The public display of her tattoos became a seminal moment for accepting tattoos as art. After the 1970s, tattoos became a mainstream part of fashion. Tattoos became common for both sexes and began to transcend socioeconomic classes.


Featured Image: Engraving for A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas by Thomas Chambers by After Sydney Parkinson – Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: PUBL-0037-16, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1924116

Otzi The Iceman image. Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11188019

William Lithgow by Hector Gavin, woodcut, circa 1800. Fair Use.

American Writer Dorothy Parker by Unknown author. Fair Use. http://www.litkicks.com/DorothyParker, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12697228

Rowland Hussey Macy. (2022, October 10). In Wikipedia. Fair Use. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rowland_Hussey_Macy.

Macy’s department store in New York on 5th Avenue by Ian Gratton from Sutton-n-Craven, North Yorkshire, England – Macey’s Department store, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25986171

Pretty Boy Floyd FBI Most Wanted Poster. Fair Use.

Janis Joplin photo. Credit unknown. Fair use.

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