Of all the cities in the world, the last one you would expect to have banned tattooing and tattoo parlours for almost four decades is probably the Big Apple, New York City. Yet, there was a complete ban on tattoo parlours in place from 1961 until 1997.
Prior to 1961, New York City had a rich history of tattooing. There were a large number of tattoo shops catering to sailors, often in shared space with barbershops. During the Civil War, tattoos took the place of dog tags, and in the mid-19th century, soldiers in NYC were inked with their names, so that if they were shot, their bodies could be correctly identified.
By the turn of the century, the electric tattoo machine was invented by New Yorker Samuel O’Reilly, inspired by Thomas Edison’s electric pen, and later improved by Charles Wagner, also a New Yorker.
In the 1930s, when Social Security numbers were first administered and people needed help retaining their numbers, it became popular in New York City to have them tattooed onto the skin. At around the same time, Mildred “Millie” Hull was the first women to own a Tattoo shop when she opened the Tattoo Emporium in the Bowery, NYC.
By the 1950s, tattoos were becoming increasingly popular in New York society and many fashionable women were getting small, subtle tattoos in spots they could easily hide when necessary. Bolder women with heavily inked bodies began receiving attention as sideshow performers on Coney Island and other performance art venues. By 1960, it wasn’t unusual to see tattooed people all over the city and in most levels of society. City officials must’ve noticed and the more conservative among them definitely wouldn’t have liked it. In 1961 a complete ban on “tattooing humans” was announced.
There seem to have been various possible reasons behind why the ban took place, the most notable being the outbreak of hepatitis B, which caused the health department to have concerns over its spread through unclean tattooing practices. (The hepatitis outbreak was never linked to tattooing.)
Some suspected it actually had more to do with the city wanting to “clean up” what they considered to be unsavoury elements before the 1964 World’s Fair, and yet others were convinced it had to do with a love triangle involving a tattooist, his wife, and a high-ranking city official.
Tattoo studios moved underground and continued to operate, often late at night and in apartments. By the 1980s, it became a city-wide joke that tattoo studios were banned and yet operated throughout the city with a bustling clientele.
It wasn’t until 1997 when Rudy Giuliani lifted the ban and tattoo artists could once again have main street parlours and ply their trade legally. He said: "The operation of a tattoo establishment in New York City is illegal, however such establishments do currently operate in the City without regulations and there has not been a single documented case of Hepatitis B in New York City transmitted by tattooing in almost 40 years since the ban was enacted."
Image Source Credit:
Sam O'Reilly Drawing
Underground Tattoo Studio Thom de Vita