With a quarter of Americans sporting at least one tattoo, it’s become impossible to walk down the street in summertime without navigating a virtual museum of color on skin. But who are the artists? Unlike a painting or a piece of music, which are closely identified with their creators, tattoos are less likely to come with an authorial pedigree. Never mind being able to identify someone else’s piece—many people (including me) don’t know the names of all the artists who produced their own.
The obscurity of tattoo artists has been a theme for as long as tattoos have existed. For every well-known tattoo artist, such as the recently fashionable Ed Hardy, the 20th-century icon Sailor Jerry, or Samuel O’Reilly, the 19th-century inventor of the rotary tattoo machine, there are thousands of others whose stories have been lost to time.
For decades, one of the most intriguing of these unknowns has been a mysterious 19th-century tattoo artist by the name of C.H. Fellowes. This March, some dogged sleuthing by an amateur genealogist helped bring Fellowes’s full identity to light, opening a window into a rarely seen part of the culture, and giving Boston a new claim on American tattoo history.
The turn of the last century, like now, was a high point in American tattoo culture. While we might think of tattoos having been strictly the domain of military and seafaring men, they spanned all levels of society; upper-class Bostonians like Charles Longfellow and Charles Goddard Weld were smitten by tattoo work, and […]