The Illegal History of Tattooing in NYC
No one would try to tell you that tattooing has always been accepted in the mainstream. Only in the last few years have visible tattoos escaped a reputation as a job interview-killer or reason not to bring home a boyfriend or girlfriend to mom and dad. But the long overdue acceptance of tattoos as a form of valid and artistic self-expression brings a great opportunity to look at the interesting, sometimes surprising history of tattoos in America. And one of the most surprising elements of that history is that one of the most culturally diverse and accepting cities in the nation was once decidedly un-tattoo-friendly.
In 1961, New York City made tattooing illegal. And it didn’t lift the ban until 1997, more than 36 years later.
There’s a wide range of theories that have attempted to explain exactly why the ban occurred, but there’s no question that it represents in interesting period in both the history of New York and tattoo culture as a whole. We wanted to find out why the ban happened, how tattoo artists and tattoo lovers dealt with the ban, and how the city and the country moved past this period into more acceptance for tattoos in American culture.
Before the Ban
Tattoos in America had already become an increasingly common sight by the early 1900s. What started as a way for sailors to identify themselves when out at sea (and avoid being conscripted to work on British Navy ships) eventually turned into a niche form of expression.
And men weren’t the only ones getting tattoos. Fashionable and forward-thinking women started to get small, subtle tattoos in spots they could easily hide when necessary. Bolder, less high-society-leaning women with heavily inked bodies started getting attention as sideshow performers on Coney Island and other performance art venues around the city.
By 1961, tattoos could be seen all over the city. And less progressively-minded city officials started to take notice. So what did they do? Well, what government officials tend to do when something new freaks them out. They overreacted.
Why the Ban Happened (and Why They Said It Happened)
Officially, the city government’s ban on the operation of tattoo studios in New York City stemmed from concerns over a public health risk. In the early 60s, New York City was experiencing a relatively minor scare of Hepatitis B, which had appeared in certain areas of the city. City health officials immediately started pointing the finger at tattooing. In their eyes, the dark tattoo studios where ink is applied to skin with electric needles just had to be the culprit.
As it turns out, this was complete nonsense. Tattoo artists continued to operate illegally in the city until the ban was lifted 36 years later, and there was no increase in Hep B cases among the tattooed population or tattoo artists.
So what was the real reason?
Many historians of the period think that there was a whole other reason why the city government was motivated to make tattooing a thing of the past in the city. At the time, tattoos were still seen by some as a callback to ‘barbaric’ self-disfigurement practices. And the city had another concern. In 1964, New York City would host the World’s Fair, one of the most prestigious and globally visible events in the world at the time.
Alas, city officials said, while cleaning their monocles with fancy handkerchiefs (or maybe that’s just how we imagine it), “we can’t have the eyes of the world upon is with our citizens covered in ghoulish tattoos. Let’s invent a bogus reason to ban them completely.”
And so the ban was put into place, and it wasn’t until 1997 when an ultra-progressive liberal folk hero (just kidding) named Rudy Guliani would lift the ban. Hey, at least he did something right at some point.
Life Under the Tattoo Ban
But what about those 36 years when the ban was still enforced? What did tattoo artists and lovers of skin decoration do?
Well, they mostly ignored it.
Tattoo studios moved underground and continued to operate, often in the dead of night after all the other (legitimate) businesses had closed their doors and prying eyes were asleep. And since it wasn’t technically illegal to have tattoos, only to give them, clients didn’t have to worry about their tattoos getting them into trouble. As long as they could have the work done when no suspicious eyes were watching, they were safe, and tattoo artists could continue to operate without regulation.
As time went by, it became a sort of city-wide joke that tattoo studios were banned and yet operated throughout the city with a bustling clientele.
Eventually, the ban was lifted, and a strange chapter in the history of an otherwise progressive city was over. Since then, tattoo culture in New York City has exploded. Experienced artists who remember the days of the ban mentor new upstarts as they bring modern styles to the scene. And lovers of body ink get to choose from a huge range of ultra-talented tattoo artists, each with their own distinct style and the hard-won ability to legally do what they do best in one of the most artistic cities on the planet.