A Short History of Tattoos in San Francisco
Once associated with sailors, circus performers and criminals, the art of tattooing has certainly changed. Many contend that millennials have helped dispel old perceptions about who gets a tattoo. Today the art form is considered one of the most unique and abiding means of self-expression.
With strong roots in San Francisco, from the Gold Rush to World War II, thousands of sailors and military personnel passed through our city. Known for its liberal and open-minded environment, San Francisco helped launch a generation of tattoo artists, allowing them to expand their craft beyond the traditional Americana style into custom and realistic tattoos.
Janis Joplin, the famous American singer-songwriter had her first tattoo in April of 1970 from legendary tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle in San Francisco. The outer wrist was a symbol standing for the liberation of women. This sparked the popularity of tattoos on women while falling into sync with the women’s liberation movement. Proud of its tattoo history San Francisco’s tattoo parlors are some of the best in the country.
Sailors and Tattoo Symbols
Traditionally sailors used tattoos as a right of passage, or a way of documenting their journeys. Considered a superstitious lot, sailors also used symbols for good luck.
● The star is a symbol of a sailor always being able to find his way home. The nautical star is a five-pointed star in dark and light shades counterchanged to resemble a compass rose.
● HOLD on the knuckles of one hand and FAST on the other, helped the seaman to better hold the rigging.
● A tattoo on each foot usually the pig on the left, chicken on the right was to protect the sailor from drowning in a shipwreck. Chicken and pigs were said to survive wrecks because their wooden shipping containers kept them afloat.
● A tattoo of a fully-rigged sailing ship meant the sailor had been around Cape Horn.
● Swallows known both for migrating long distances and returning to the same areas every year were commonly used on the chest. One swallow tattoo meant the completion of a 5000 nautical mile voyage, and the hope of a safe return home, the second meant 10,000 miles had been completed.