You might think tattoos are a 20th century thing, at least in the west. It isn’t! In 1862 the Prince of Wales, later to become king Edward VII (he was the son of queen Victoria!) received his first tattoo, a Jerusalem cross made by Francois Souwan, while he visited Jerusalem. He was then around 18 or 20 years old, and send to the East by Victoria, who seemed to have not been particularly fond of her dandy son.
While most British ports had had professional tattoo artists in residence since the 18th century, Edwards tattoo started a fad among aristocracy. In 1882, Edward’s sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York (George V,) were tattood by the Japanese tattooist Hoti Chiyo, George V received a tattoo of a dragon on his arm. Later on the prince received more tattoos, by Tom Riley and Sutherland Macdonals.
Prince George (Edward’s son) wrote in a letter “we have been tattooed by the same old man who tattooed papa, and the same thing too, five crosses. You ask Papa to show you his arm.” (This contradicts the BBC source at the end of this article.)
All the 19th century dictionaries and encyclopaedias suggest that among Europeans tattooing was confined to seamen, and sometimes soldiers. The first permanent tattoo shop in new york city was set up in 1846 and began a tradition by tattooing military servicemen from both sides of the civil war. Samuel o’Reilly invented the electric tattooing machine in 1891.
In 1861 French naval surgeon Maurice Berchon published a study on the medical complications of tattooing and after this, the navy and army banned tattooing within their ranks.
Another 19th century thing is people who claim to have been unwillingly tattood, for example John Rutherford who arrived on the exhibition scene in 1827 with a full Maori Moko tattoo on his face. He made quite a profit from telling how he was captured and tattood by force.
Sadly, none of the British princes seems to have been keen on showing off their tats in public. The only pictures of 19th century tattoos I could find are these, but please click at risk, as these have been removed from the rest of the body:
It made me a little queasy.
Disclaimer: the issue of tattoos, being something of the body, is not very well documented in contemporary sources. All info in this post was found on the net, I only included what seemed to make sense but keep in mind there are no ‘official’ sources!
I found this on the BBC website, which I consider a fairly academic source:
During the 19th Century leading figures in society criticised the practice, associating it with the rough life of sailors, port towns and prostitutes.
However in 1882 King George V was given a large dragon tattoo on his arm on a visit to Japan.
In 1900, it was estimated that 90% of all sailors in the US Navy were tattooed, while the Second World War saw a surge in patriotic tattoos among servicemen
Edit: Commenter Elisabeth linked me to a forum where some excellent research was done on Victorian tattoos, and a picture was found showing Nicolas II with a tattoo, from the 1890s. You can read all about it, here.