Baxter's Blog


Posted in History, Road Trip Stuff by misterroadtripper on August 26, 2010


By Bob Baxter

Now that we have built a viable website and produce a Daily Blog that has generated, already, a dedicated audience of readers, it is time to reflect on the art form in which we are all to some degree involved. Many of you are artists and others are collectors. Some wear bodysuits fashioned by legendary craftsmen with a skill unheard of until today. Others have a small “pork chop” or a “tramp stamp” that was applied on a whim, on a dare from friends or a celebration of an eighteenth birthday. Whatever the case, we have all experienced the initiation, the modern-day version of a tribal rite of passage. We are all members of a family. A family in which each member has proclaimed, in ink, something about themselves, often something deep inside, that needed to be inscribed on the outside, on their skin… for all to see. For some it is a fashion statement. For some, a badge of courage. Others see it as a living gallery, a statement of their place in a world of color and form and design. And many, academics and dreamers alike, consider it our acceptance of who we are, where we have been and who we hope to be.


At the dawn of history, a lone tribesman accidentally poked his skin with a sharp stick from his fire. The next day, he singlehandedly killed a bear, and that random dot of carbon became magic. Other tribesmen wanted that skin-poked image, too. And the art―and power―of tattoo was born.

Over 2,000 years ago, two young Polynesian girls, the twins Taima and Tilafaima, swam from Fiji to Samoa with the wooden sticks―the uhi, a foot-long shaft with a sharp, boar’s tusk comb at the tip, and the hahau, the tapping rod―and, thus, the essence, the mana of tattoo was born and spread throughout Polynesia. No wonder that the tattoo symbols from Hawai’i, the Marquesas, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Tonga and Samoa are similar in appearance, as are the names of the designs. Quite simply, living proof that ancient mariners sailed back and forth, from island to island.

The Hokule'a

Not possible said the naysayers. This could never be done across such vast expanses of empty ocean. Not without modern navigational equipment. But the legend became reality when, in 1973, a group of Polynesian mariners built a large voyaging canoe to sail from Hawai’i to Tahiti and back―without a sextant. The canoe, the Hokule’a was launched in 1975. Based on journal notes and illustrations from early European expeditions, along with verbal information from chants and legends, Mau Piailug, a traditional navigator from Micronesia guided the canoe, using the stars and ocean swells much as the ancients did. The voyage was a success. Yes, tattoos were passed from island to island.

In the sixteenth century, tattooed tribal peoples were captured and displayed around Europe. Seafaring explorers Jean Baptiste Cabri and John Rutherford were forcibly tattooed by native peoples in voyages to the Marquesas and Aotearoa. Even Herman Melville was tattooed. Can we ever forget the elaborately inked Quequeg, the mysterious whaleman and harpooner from Moby Dick?

These covered parts of him were checkered with the same squares as his face; his back, too, was all over the same dark squares. Still more, his very legs were marked, as if a parcel of dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms.

Sailor Jerry Collins

In recent memory, we’ve heard the stories of sailors, an uncle or a grandfather, on twenty-four-hour shore leave heading straight to the tattoo parlors of San Diego, Hong Kong and Hawai’i. Just as the pilots marked the planes with symbols noting bombing missions, sailors marked their travels with tattoo ink from the likes of Sailor Jerry Collins, Pinky Yun and Johnny 2-Thumbs.

And so it continues. Only a decade ago, Modesto, California, a small, rural town on the outskirts of San Francisco was home to two remote tattoo shops. Today, there are twenty. San Francisco has nearly forty, Los Angeles has one hundred and eight. A conservative estimate of tattoo shops in the U.S. is twenty-five thousand. There are tattoo-themed television shows, with more on the way. There is tattoo clothing, tattoos in advertising, tattoos as fashion, tattoos in sport, in music and in mainstream society. Using tattoos to make their statement, both individuals and cultures have discovered a new and dramatic vehicle for proclaiming their uniqueness.

Facial Moko

A young Indian lad from Ship Rock, New Mexico, wears a tattoo of Custer’s Last Stand. A New Zealander wears an elaborate facial Moko, as his grandfather and great-grandfather before him. A heart surgeon from Philadelphia has a photo of his daughter tattooed on his chest. A stockbroker from New York City secretly wears a full bodysuit under his Brooks Brothers clothing.

There is no doubt. We are living amid the great tattoo resurgence. And just as the air of a tattoo shop is filled with the undeniable odor of green soap, our traditions are filled with the melancholy perfume of salt and sea. For, without the ships, without the sailors, the news would not have spread. The traditions would not be born and this great art form would remain landlocked and remote. Because of ships, canoes and, yes, even swimming twin sisters, every state, every country, every continent touched by water is joined together in a tattooed brother- and sisterhood that transcends wars, and politics, and hatreds and, yes, even fear.

It’s the young toughs cornering a victim in an alley, only to put down their bats and two-by-fours and, seeing his tattoos, ask, “Hey, dude, who did your ink?”

It’s the laughing women showing off a life-changing bouquet of roses tattooed where her mastectomy used to be.

Tattooed Fireman

The old man who draws a crowd of admiring youngsters in the supermarket with the Bert Grimm parrot he got back in the ’60s. A New York City fireman wearing a tattoo to remember his fallen comrades from 9/11.

Yes, tattooing is experiencing perhaps the greatest explosion of serious art in the history of the world. Tens of thousand of tattooists making original art. True, art appreciation and art classes have been squeezed out of grade schools and high schools and hand-drawn art has been made obsolete by innovative computer software, but no matter. Tattoo shops flourish and new artists enter the scene every day. A 2003 Harris Poll indicates that sixteen percent of all adults have at least one tattoo. Among Americans ages twenty-five to twenty-nine years of age, thirty-six percent. And that was seven years ago!

To commemorate this unique time in history―this unique time in art history―Tattoo Road Trip presents a diverse magazine of tattoo art, memorabilia and written word, bringing together ancient and modern cultures in a website and daily blog showcasing the leading collectors, journalists, craftspeople and artists from today’s tattoo scene. This electronic “magazine” offers an exciting multiplicity of views. You’ll read about the ancient, the modern, the living art form called “tattoo.” So, come join us as we explore the past, present and future of what has become the most all-encompassing, energetic and creative art form since the Renaissance.

—To be continued.

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