Tattoos, once the mark of a rebel or a marginalised group, have lately become entirely mainstream – arguably rendered more popular by reality TV series like “Miami Ink,” “L.A. Ink,” and “Ink Master,” which have established tattooists as cutting edge modern artists. But the tattoo industry has been around since records began: Cultures around the world have been modifying their bodies with ink for thousands of years, from the aboriginals of New Zealand, to the Irezumi tattoos of Japan that represent spiritual and decorative homage and date back as far as 10,000 BC.
Tattoo lines found on the arm of the 5300-year-old Tyrolean iceman, who was discovered at the Italian-Austrian border in 1991 by Alpine climbers, suggest the etchings were made with soot. The theory is that thorns were used to pierce the skin deeply enough to insert the substance. The ancient tebori skin art method in Japan took this a step further, using a sharpened bamboo stick called a nomi and repeatedly “stabbing” the design into the skin. This practice is still employed for hardcore skin art fanatics and Angelina Jolie even reportedly received the treatment for the text that is inked on her back shoulder.
These days tattoos are, obviously, less archaic but the act of tattooing is still extreme and certainly not for the faint of heart. Needles with mercury-containing red dyes, manganese purples and even glow-in-the-dark pigments are used to create everything from elaborate black and grey portraits to American traditional eagles and new-school graphic-art designs. As tattoos move from counter-culture to pop culture, elaborate body art is more common on a global scale than ever before. So, who can we thank for the bizarre but undeniably creative evolution of permanent body art? Here, we’ve taken a look at some of the very oldest parlours around the world and how their humble shops played a small but not insignificant part in the revolution of body art.
10. Fun City Tattoo/Daredevil Tattoo Studio, Manhattan
New York City is where modern electric tattooing was born. But in the past, it was an underground art that involved hushed whispers, secret doors and the odd secret handshake (we assume), until the ban that had made tattooing illegal was lifted in 1997. Today, Fun City Tattoo in Manhattan is the area’s oldest shop, opening in 1976 despite the prohibition which kept it under the radar for nearly two decades. Legendary outlaw artist Jonathan Shaw, probably best known for his progressive tribal tattoos of the 90s, opened the shop that became a hot spot for celebs including Johnny Depp, Kate Moss, and Naomi Campbell. The parlour was purchased by Daredevil Tattoo Studio in 2007, and has become known for its large-scale custom work.
9. Aart Accent Tattoos, New Orleans
Jacci Gresham is the 67-year-old female tattoo artist behind New Orleans’ oldest tattoo parlour. When Gresham went into business in 1976, she was the first black female tattoo artist in the country. Although she had not initially set out on this particular career path, she took it in stride. Gresham, who is originally from Detroit, settled in New Orleans at 29-years-old. She studied architecture and engineering, eventually working for General Motors designing floor plans for car dealerships. When she met a man by the name of Ajit “Ali” Singh, a trained tattoo artist who decided to open a shop she just “followed along.”
Gresham learned the craft over the years and the thrill of leaving a permanent mark on her clients has not dissipated. She and Singh opened a second location in 1982 but lost it – and her home – in Hurricane Katrina. Singh died in 1995 but Gresham, despite the setbacks, is still going strong. Unlike many artists of her time, Gresham was one of the first who was unafraid to move past the “flash” style and develop custom work for clients.
8. Caio Tattoo, Rio de Janeiro
Established in the 70s, in the River Gallery area within the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Ipanema, Caio has become the oldest parlour in the state of Brazil. Caio, the business’ namesake and the artist who has been working there for over 40 years, maintains a surprisingly youthful vigor and artful flair to his work. While his start in the industry won him clients that were either “sailors… or bandits,” today his clientele is widespread across generations and occupations. However, the mainstream population of Rio took longer to catch on to tattooing than the rest of the world. Even as recently as ten years ago locals still eyed tattoos with dubious glances and raised eyebrows – Caio has explained to the press that the industry became more acceptable there through the surf scene. With a long and expert career, and a shop conveniently located near the beach, Caio became instrumental in the move towards appreciation and acceptance of body modification in a city where the body is sacred.
7. Tattoo Lou’s, Long Island
This Long Island, NY, parlour has been in business for 50 years. These days, owner and award-winning artist Lou Rubino has employed the help of his son, also Lou (and also award winning), to help run the shop. Lou Sr. grew up learning to tattoo alongside some of New York’s greats, including One-eyed Max Peltz, who tattooed out of his sidewalk booth at Coney Island. At Rubino’s shop, he and his son have honed their crafts and one of their specialties is Celtic designs. Celtic artwork and tattoos have been around since 400 BC. The designs held special significance to the Irish population, showcasing a love for their culture and heritage. The tattoos often represented family crests or pagan gods and goddesses, and required an intricate and highly specialized pattern that’s not easy to pull off for even the most skilled artists. That attention to detail and expertise with the needle still plays a vital role to the end result of these tattoos today. The line work, when done right, is a visual masterpiece and the dramatic style has contributed to its resurgence with many of Tattoo Lou’s clients.
6. Jimmy’s Custom Tattoo, Athens
Greece’s popular tourist destination, Athens, is famous for many things – ocean panoramas, fresh foods, good wine, sunshine. But its trendy district of Plaka also boasts the oldest tattoo parlour in the country. Brother and sister team of Paul and Anna Mamatsis can be found here inking colourful, intricate custom work for clients. The shop takes it name from their father, the original owner who opened the parlour in the 70s.
Jimmy Mamatsis is a legend in Athens. He spent his youth as a seaman in the 50s and 60s, developing a passion for tattoos at a stop in Bombay. During the late 50s and early 60s he travelled through New York and Canada, as a greenhorn tattooist, before calling Athens home. Although tattooing was illegal at the time, Jimmy railed against city officials and five years later, in 1982, was awarded a license. He was officially the first tattoo parlour in the country.
5. Johnny Two Thumb Tattoo Studio / New Lucky, Singapore
Indra Bahadur, born in Nepal in the 20s, was a tattoo artist by the time he was 18, having learned the art in India from the help of a family friend. When Bahadur found himself in Singapore in the early 50s, he began New Lucky Store – a tattoo parlour that he worked in for over 30 years before his death in the late 80s. In the early days, he inked the sailors who rambled in and out of his shop door on sails around the world, and his reputation as an impeccable craftsman led to widespread recognition through word of mouth. He was dubbed “Johnny two thumb” for the trademark double thumb on his right hand, but that didn’t slow him down. He worked with unusual machines created to optimize his extra appendage and his skill was widely appreciated; he became world-famous in the early days of Singapore’s tattoo scene. The Johnny Two Thumb Tattoo Studio was founded in the early 80s, to commemorate the tattooing legend.
4. Les Skuse Tattoo Studio, Bristol
This shop in Bristol, England has been around since the 1920s, and has been passed down through the family for three generations. The nearby Skuse Family Museum showcases tattoo memorabilia from 80-odd years of business. When Les started the shop, he was awarded the title of Champion Tattoo Artist of All England, and afterwards he formed the Bristol Tattoo Club. When he passed away in the 70s, his son, Danny, took over. Danny’s son Jimmie Skuse found his way into the family business early – the youngster was apprenticing at the parlour by age 14 and in 2004 he also established the Temple Street shop.
The Les Skuse parlour caters to all styles – from tribal to Japanese to custom and new-school designs – and has come a long way since the 50s of England. At the time, tattoo artists were using single needles and leaving behind scratchy lines on their clients’ skin accompanied by a considerable level of pain. Les spent a significant amount of time learning the craft in America, through visits and comprehensive correspondences with other artists. He brought the combination machine techniques across to the UK and thereby helped transform the art of tattooing in Britain.
3. Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo / Outer Limits Tattoo & Body Piercing, Long Beach
The Long Beach location is heralded as the oldest tattoo shop in the US, with owner Kari Barba’s 30 year career the most recent fixture of this California hot spot. As part of her 30 year anniversary last year, Barba auctioned off some of her historic memorabilia, including a vintage tattooing chair. Prior to Barba’s reign, Outer Limits has been an ongoing tattoo shop since 1927. It became notable in the 50s when renowned artist Bert Grimm took the helm and turned the parlour into Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo. His artistry soon became an epic fixture of the tattoo scene on the West Coast. Grimm was the first ever inductee into the tattoo hall of fame, and legend has it that his clients included outlaw Bonnie Parker and American bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd. When Barba eventually took over, she turned part of the shop into a museum to honour some of the most significant artists of Long Beach who’d worked there before her.
2. Tattoo-Ole, Copenhagen
The birthplace of tattooing in Denmark was Nyhavn, Copenhagen – a popular tourist street. Many who pass by today are oblivious to the history of this lower-level unit in a non-descript building that once housed sailors and the rough-living outsiders of Denmark society at the turn of the Century.
Tattoo-Ole is often cited as the oldest functioning tattoo shop in the world. The customers back then, in the 1800s, were almost exclusively sailors, who stumbled in with cigarettes dangling, looking for a bit of permanent body memorabilia from Hans J Hansen, known as Ink Hans. The owner of the basement shop became an artist after his own stint as a sailor. He learned to tattoo by trial and error, practicing on the teetotalers at his mother’s Copenhagen bar. His style was strictly “flash,” that is: a poster of pre-designed tats that were advertised in the foyer of the shop. Anyone wanting a tattoo would pick from the designs that were banged out in under an hour. Ownership eventually transferred to acclaimed artist Tattoo Jack, and then arguably Denmark’s most famous artist of all time, Tattoo Ole.
1. Razzouk, Jerusalem
A well-known Jerusalem tattoo parlor has been employing one family of tattoo artists for hundreds of years. Orthodox Christians who visit the Holy Land often stop by the parlor in Old City for a permanent homage to their pilgrimage and their faith. The tattoos embody the cross, pilgrims, the Virgin Mary, and other religious symbols that are buzzed into skin under the watchful eye of the family’s patriarch Anton Razzouk. The business goes as far back as 300 years when Anton’s ancestor arrived to the city by donkey, from Egypt, and decided to stay and set up a shop. The art form has been passed down from father to son to daughter over the centuries. According to Razzouk, his father inked Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as well as hundreds of allied troops during WWII. The mission of this tattoo parlor is simple: the markings they leave behind on clients are a reminder to the faithful not to sin – an interesting twist on the sailor and outlaw stories which are intrinsic to the tattooing industry’s image.