From Tradition to Taboo and Back Again

A Look at the History of Tattoos

Story by Roger Moore

There was a time, still is for some, that perceptions of those with any form of body art, tattoos or piercings, was unenthusiastic. Perhaps this person is a criminal? A biker? A thug?

My father, a navy man and veteran of the Korean War (1950-53), had a handful of tattoos. There were the two swallows on his chest and the anchors between his thumbs and forefingers. Growing up I never really thought much about it, never asked him “why?” and “what for?” I just knew that not everyone had tattoos; the few veterans of military service I knew and some of those “shady” characters that you probably did not want to mess with.

How times have changed over the last four decades.

Proof of tattooing dates to the Egyptians in at least 3300 BCE. Artifacts recovered during an archeological dig in Utah included a 2000-year-old 3½ inch wooden tool that contained residue of carbon used in ancient tattooing ink. Indigenous peoples used sharpened bone or rock to carve directly into the skin then filled the design with soot or natural dyes to stain the wound. Following battles, men might earn a tattoo signifying victory. These markings would often contain spiritual or mystical meanings and often emulated animals in an effort to gain their strength or characteristics.

Ironically, in a region with such a long Native American history, Oklahoma became the last in the United States to legalize tattooing in May 2006.

As one might imagine, tattooing history is a bit under the radar. Not everyone left Payne County or the state of Oklahoma to get work done up until 2006, but like any other underground culture, there were places off Main Street to get artwork done. Some of them may not have been up to current health standards or had the top-of-the-line equipment, but, like any underground culture, it was available.

The earliest tattoo parlors opened in the United States in the early 1800s; they focused on sailors and soldiers. It was not accepted among Europeans, or at least Christian leadership. In the 700s Christian leaders labeled tattooing barbaric and sacrilegious, the exact opposite philosophy of most indigenous peoples. But a 2000 study by National Geographic showed that 15 percent of Americans (40 million) had at least one tattoo on their body, a number that translated into a $1.65 billion industry. That was two decades ago. A 2012 study showed 21 percent of Americans had one or more tattoos.

Over the last century, attitudes have ebbed and flowed with the post-World War II era seeing a rise of acceptance. A shift occurred in the 1950s with only “bad boys” getting work done on their bodies. Slowly, but surely, through the 1960s and 1970s attitudes shifted slightly. In the 1980s as the video medium increased the visibility of celebrities and rock stars, tattoos received a major boost in popularity. Today it is rare that a professional athlete or musician does not have a bit of artwork on display. For that matter, the general public has had plenty of work done, all shapes and sizes, colors, and in various locations on the body. It is no longer a taboo subject. Soldiers honor fallen comrades with some ink. A lost loved one can be memorialized. Television programs related to tattoos with odd characters and normal folks can be found on most cable packages.

The crew at Black Shamrock 215 knows all-too-well the diverse clientele. A few prominent Oklahoma State footballers, a wrestler or two, and plenty of Stillwater natives have spent time in their facility. The original tattoo parlor in Stillwater, it opened at 215 South Knoblock (across from the fire station on campus corner) in 2006. Matt Noghabai opened the first shop in Stillwater.

“They looked at us like we were lepers or something when we first opened,” Noghabai said. “It’s pretty cool to see how much it’s changed over the last 13 years. We get all kinds of people in here who want to get tattooed. It’s become normal.”

Austin Woodliff joined Noghabai in 2009 and took over ownership of the shop in 2014. Within the last year, the duo is back working together and moved the operation to 1601 South Perkins Road.

Stillwater includes two other parlors, Tomahawk Tattoo & Piercing at 225 South Perkins in Frontier Plaza, and Artistic Temptations Tattoo, LLC, at 906 West 6th Avenue. Tomahawk opened in 2011, while Artistic, on the south end of “The Strip” on Washington Street, opened in 2007.

Like any other business, there are guidelines and standards to meet with local government. With tattooing, there are additional standards related to the Oklahoma State Department of Health that includes apprenticeships and licensing procedures. After all, there are needles involved, so it is imperative that health and safety standards are maintained.

A quick check of availability and one finds at least a month wait at all three parlors. That means there is a long line waiting to get a tattoo of a kitty cat, some barbed wire, or perhaps a famous and inspirational quote. It’s up to the imagination of the canvas and creativity of the artist.

In case you were wondering, swallows are symbols used historically by sailors to show off sailing experience; it is also believed that if the sailor drowns the swallows will carry the soul of the sailor to heaven. The anchor represents hope, salvation, composure, calm, and steadfastness. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean also earns an anchor for a sailor. This scribe, a U.S. Army veteran of the Persian Gulf War, is at seven and counting, each representing something personal. Call it a walking scrapbook if you like.