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The Eroticism of Tattooing

by Rob Blauwhuis in Lifestyle & Fashion , 16 mei 2016

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

The tattoo has become mainstream over the past decades, after being a symbol for outcasts for a long time. This can be concluded, for example, from various documentary television series, such as “Tattoo Fixers,” which is aired on British television with great success for some seasons now. In this television series, renowned tattoo artists replace the often terrible tattoos by wonderful works of art. The “horror tattoos” that have to be replaced were often made when drunk and on holiday, or by friends lacking the proper skills who’d ordered a tattoo set on the Internet.

The visibility and acceptance of tattoos was certainly lower in the 1980s when Rob’s Leather invited international tattoo artists for some time to the Netherlands, to provide tattoos for a clientele that most likely did not feel at ease expressing their wishes to the few tattoo artists working in the Red Light District at the time. It is not a coincidence that a leather company would put in all this effort for tattoo art, as Sean Cribbin observes in his introduction to “Turnon: Tattoos”.

“Until recently tattoos were most often associated with the underbelly or fringes of society: prisoners, outlaw bikers, skinheads. It is with this association and the personification of the hyper masculine image I believe that the leather and kink world has adopted these ancient tribal rituals as part of their own culture. The leather world is a clan worldwide, often referred to as a tribe or as author Geoff Mains termed ‘Urban Aboriginals.’”

In the late 1980s, the rise of the tattoo seemed to have come to a stop. On November 21, 1989, Dutch newspaper “De Volkskrant” published an article with the title “Tattoos Less Popular with Youth.” The article started with the following conclusion: “Tattoos have become less popular with male secondary school pupils. In the early 1980s, two pediatricians in The Hague concluded that 13.3 percent of Junior Technical School pupils had an amateurish or professional tattoo.

In 1988, that percentage was only 5.2.” Often, when the conversation turned to tattoos, the pediatricians were told that the pupils were afraid of getting AIDS. According to the doctors concerned, the then AIDS education had an effect on the popularity of tattoos, because “even though it was never recorded, it was possible that badly cleaned tattoo needles could transmit the HIV virus.”

Erotic Designs

This fear was not long-lasting, also because the health officials imposed strict hygiene rules on professional tattoo studios. Some six years after the publication of this article, which was based on research by the Health Authority The Hague, the popularity of tattoos had increased to such an extent that Taschen Verlag, a publishing firm dedicated to affordable coffee table books, saw a big international market for “1000 Tattoos” by Henk Schiffmacher. Schiffmacher became famous all over the world by the nickname Hanky Panky, and has tattooed Kurt Cobain, Marc Almond, Robbie Williams, and Lady Gaga, among others.

In his introduction to “1000 Tattoos,” Schiffmacher mostly addressed a large number of ethnographic aspects of the tattoo. He also discussed the developments in tattoo technique, which was shaped in the Western world by the introduction of the electrical tattoo machine in 1891 by Samuel Reilly. About the sexual aspect of modern tattoos, let alone the homoerotic aspect, he only remarked: “A different aspect is the tattoo as erotic ornament, something that makes the body more interesting sexually, asking for a response.

This holds true for leather freaks, sadomasochists, rubber and piercing fetishists, masters and slaves.” After this, he gives some examples of sexually charged tattoos. It is understandable, however, that in an eighteen page introduction he had to make a very limited choice from the rich history of and modern practices in the world of tattooing.

However, in his other books Schiffmacher also shows himself straight pure and simple, and as someone who sees the leather scene, to put it in mild terms, with amused astonishment. Luckily, Schiffmacher is now one of the many who are tackling the iconography and the history of tattoos. Photo-wise, the homoerotic aspects of tattoos were highlighted in the book “Turnon: Tattoos,” which was published by Bruno Gmünder in 2011. The book contains a wonderful selection from the work of forty-four photographers and photo studio’s.

A (historic) work on tattoos as phenomenon in the gay world still needs to be written. There is one unique book that was written from a homoerotic perspective, that is still worth a read. This remarkable book was published some years before the death of its author, Samuel M. Steward (1909-1993), with the title “Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo with Gangs, Sailors, and Street-Corner Punks 1950-1965” (1990).

Samuel Steward is a special case. He started his career as a professor of English at various US universities. After approximately two decades, he was so fed up with teaching at small universities, that he decided to drastically turn his life around and pursue a career as a tattoo artist. In 1950 he opened a studio in Chicago, which became immensely popular, because Steward, who worked under the pseudonym Phil Sparrow, preferred to work in a clean, hygienic work space, unlike most of his colleagues at the time. Incidentally, Steward would give his career another turn after working as a tattoo artist for eighteen years. Under the pseudonym Phil Andros, he became in the 1960s the author of popular gay pornographic novels in which the hustler Phil Andros plays first fiddle. During the last years of his life Steward published some books under his own name, including a nonfiction work about male prostitution end the tattoo book.

Alfred Kinsey

In the 1940s, Chicago was the hunting ground of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who combed gay subculture to collect as much data as possible for a study on homosexuality, and to shape this into his much talked about “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” (1948). During his many visits to Chicago, Kinsey met Steward, who was one of the men he interviewed for his study. When Kinsey heard that Steward wanted to open a tattoo shop, he immediately asked him to record the perhaps sexual motives of his clients for getting a tattoo.

For Kinsey, Steward’s unorthodox career planning was a stroke of luck, as it is rather rare for a scholar to decide to become a tattoo artist. Steward conscientiously took on this challenge, and wrote volumes of notes. These notes can now be found at the Institute for Sex Research of the University of Indiana, and formed the basis of Steward’s book.


The fact that Steward had chosen Chicago to set up shop led to many young sailors getting tattoos there. The Great Lakes Naval Training Station was just outside Chicago, and to confirm their adulthood, many young sailors visited the shop. This was heaven on earth for Steward, as becomes clear from a confession in his book: “Back in those days when tattooing still retained much of its mysterious quality for me, and even before putting on my first tattoo, the associations between tattooing and sailors were strong. My imagination always pictured an old grizzled salt with a rolling gait, his arms covered with the designs he had got as mementos of his visits to faraway places.

But after I saw Kenneth Anger’s art film ‘Fireworks,’ the salts I pictured were not so grizzled nor so old, but young and handsome and tough. [...] It was quite a surprise and shock, therefore, when I saw the kind of sailors that came into my shop in Chicago.

They were kids - quite young, eighteen - and some of them whose parents had signed consents for Navy service were only seventeen.” For Kinsey as well, as receiver of Steward’s notes, it must have seemed a garden of lust.

Because the navy did everything, as Stewards indicates elsewhere in his book, to make these young sailors discover the pleasure of the bodies of other young men. “[The navy] prohibited pin-ups in closets, confiscated match boxes with pictures of girls at the main entrance, and fired them when caught masturbating. Then, the navy put them in closed quarters with their overheated eighteen-year-old blood, in an exclusive male society for several weeks.”

To sustain his popularity in the naval compound, which in his own words was considerable, Steward of course had to keep his sexual preference to himself for his youthful navy clientele. Sometimes, the naive spontaneity of these boys led to comical situations. “One sailor, quite drunk, [...] suddenly came over to me and clasped his arm around my neck. ‘Do you like sailors?,’ he demanded. The others looked on curiously. ‘Sure I do,’ I said, ‘I’ve seen a lot of you here in the shop.’ ‘Well, I’m glad,’ he said, ‘because I sure as hell like you.’ For one awful moment I thought he was going to kiss me, but he didn’t and all the others laughed.”

Prison Tattoos

Steward did not only see sailors in his studio. In the days he was working as a tattoo artist, tattoos were mostly the domain of men somewhat living outside of society. It doesn’t come as a surprise that many former prisoners had a tattoo in those days. When these tattoos were made in prison, they often were of terrible quality, as they had been made under extremely limited circumstances. Many former prisoners were getting a new tattoo over their prison tattoo. In most prisons, tattooing was prohibited, and consequently, the tattoos were often made after lights out: “The two cell-mates will crawl under the blankets, and one will painfully and sometimes elaborately tattoo his buddy.

I saw thousands of ‘pokey’ tattoos and began to ask what happened after the tattoo was finished. About eight out of ten would answer ‘Nuthing’’ until I bluntly asked: ‘And then did you jack each other off?’ Affirmative response: very large number of instances. They would either admit it somewhat shamefacedly, or else say: ‘Gahdamn, how did you know?’ The blanket, the darkness, the needles and the pain, the secrecy and rule-breaking, the sense of danger, the heat from their bodies, and - perhaps - the very idea of tattooing all contributed to a sexual arousal, and masturbation proved to be the easiest way out. The continuing investigations of sex in prison establish the fact that activities other than masturbation probably took place as well,” Steward notes.

Sexual Tattoos

Prisoners were not the only ones with a strong sexual reaction to tattooing. At a certain point, Steward made a habit of asking clients who returned after getting a tattoo what they had done after getting it. Not everyone wanted to answer this question, but the majority of those who did (1724) confessed fucking a woman. That they sometimes found a boy or man for this was impossible to admit, given the narrow-mindedness of the 1950s. 635 of them told him they ended up in a fight, and 231 (plus 800 in the first group) got drunk. And no less than 879 admitted to wanking off while admiring their own tattoo.

Of course, Kinsey was particularly interested in tattoos with a sexual depiction or with sexual intent. In that respect Steward usually had to disappoint Kinsey, but at times he ran into remarkable examples, for instance with the case of the male hooker who had “$10” tattooed in his pubic hair. “What he did about that after inflation eroded the dollar’s value I never learned.” And a gay man had an inch marking tattooed on his arm: “He wanted them put on the inner side of his left forearm, with his hand held out in a straight extension of the arm, palm upwards. The first mark, at five inches, was a short red line at the base of the palm on the little finger side, the second at six inches, and three, four, and five - down to ten inches, running up the side of the forearm. Thus he always had at hand a convenient ruler to measure objects in which he was interested. Only rarely did he find anything that exceeded his built-in measuring-stick. Although these marks were applied in the mid 1950s, they were still visible in the 1990s on the side of my [!] arm.”

At a certain moment, Steward moved his studio to California, where he worked on many Hell’s Angels. Unexpectedly perhaps, he could also add a design to his collection of homoerotic tattoos here. With the Hell’s Angels, the Air Force badge of two wings with a black circle in the middle of it was a sign that its owner was attracted to men, had robbed gay men, or had been a hustler.

Strange Chemistry

In his university years, when Steward had his first tattoo, he must have been an outsider among colleagues and gay friends, who were mostly middle-class. With horror, they saw tattoos as something for the “lower classes.” Steward also got other responses when he told them about his tattoos. Some admitted they were afraid of the pain (which is not too bad, but people only believe that after the experience). Others recoiled because of the tattoo’s permanent character, or the fact that a person can be easily identified because of it. And then of course there were those men who were so much in love with their own bodies that they did not think any decorations were necessary. Steward, who had been very influenced by the Freudian vision on homosexuality, meant that many gay men were narcissists, and therefore did not get tattoos.

One would wish that he would be around nowadays in cities such as Amsterdam, New York, or Chicago, on sports fields, or could observe the gay male porn industry during the last few decades, admiring the wonderful tattoos on legs, chests, shoulder blades and buttocks of the many boys and men of today. It would be great if a new Phil Sparrow would secretly keep a diary in which he recorded the motives for getting a tattoo in gay men. Because there is still the strange chemistry between the tattoo artist and the customer, with the customer telling stories he would not tell another living soul. If there currently is a Phil Sparrow out there, I hope he doesn’t wait tens of years to come out with his stories.



In the New Issue of Gay News, 327, November 2018

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