Sun Dancer Tattoos:

The Sun Dancer tattoo is an easily recognizable American traditional design, first painted by Bert Grimm, a pioneer of American traditional tattooing who worked from around 1916-1970. An important part of Indigenous history and culture, the Sun Dance is a spiritual ceremony that was and is still very important to different groups, primarily to those of the plains cultures in America and Canada.

Sun Dancer with eagle and heads by Fabio Onorini.
Blackwork back done by Clemens Hahn.

The ceremony is a gruelling but important one, primarily (though not entirely) performed by males. The dancer fasts, going without both food and drink for days at a time, while dancing around a sacred fire and traditional pole meant to represent the sun. Others drum and sing prayers while the dancer dances until exhausted.

Sun Dancer true to Bert Grimm by Kim-Anh.
Backpiece true to Bert Grimm by Gustavo Silvano.

As part of the ceremony, piercing and suspension is also common. This involves a leader piercing rods into the chest or back of the dancer, while they drag a bison head until the skin rips. Other variations involve horses pulling at the rods, or the dancer being suspended from the pole by the rods in their skin. This inspired modern suspension.

Blackwork interpretation by Flurick Ruslan.
Cute foot Sun Dancer by Heath Arnolde.

Often times the dancer would become delirious and hallucinate both from the physical and mental exertion, topped with dehydration and extreme hunger. Unfortunately the ceremony was banned in Canada in 1885 under the Indian Act, but the ban was dropped in 1951, though Indigenous people continue(d) to be treated unfairly. Today the Sun Dance is still performed by some communities.

Sun Dancer with dragon in this piece by Florian Santus.
Big thigh Sun Dancer done by Nick Griffiths.

One of the first examples of this ceremony being painted is Bert Grimm’s Sun Dancer flash and tattoo. The original painting depicts a girl dancing with her left knee raised, right hand holding a spear, with a shield depicting a bald eagle in her left hand. A red sun and traditional roses make up the background.

Sun Dancer and dragon by Rich Hadley.
Skeletal Sun Dancer by Roger Oliveira.

As the design was first made by a pioneer of American traditional tattooing, it is mainly tattooed today in the same style. Though people do take artistic liberties, sometimes including animals or other flowers, and even changing the subject of the tattoo. It is often done as a back tattoo, but can also be seen on arms and legs, usually as still large pieces, though through adaptation artists have created smaller pieces as well.

Punk interpretation in a painting by Miguel Neils.
A more neo traditional animal version of the Sun Dance by Robson Nagata.

To read more about the Sun Dance please check out https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sun-dance

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Artist of the Month: Jimmy Ho

Jimmy Ho is a tattoo artist in Hong Kong. Jimmy has had his own shop since he was 14, and was tattooing before that, thanks to his father, James. His father opened Hong Kong’s first tattoo shop in 1946 called “The Rose Tattoo”, and by 1950 the shop was working non-stop to fill the demands of American soldiers getting tattooed. Jimmy has had his own shop since 1958.

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An in progress pic of chest panels and half sleeves done in traditional Chinese style.
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Jimmy tattooing a dragon onto Chinese movie star Michael Chan in the 1970’s.

Jimmy started tattooing sailors at night before he was 14, when his fathers shop was technically closed. He wanted to help out and make some money so he started doing them himself, and has been tattooing ever since.

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Three Chinese dragons.
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Tiger flash from 1983

During the Korean war he and the other artists at his father’s shop would tattoo 30-40 men per day due to the high demand. Jimmy would tattoo soldiers everyday from 11am until 4am, non stop.

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Chinese dragon as a full back piece.
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Raijin and dragons done in 1984 or 85.

Jimmy has his own style, modelled after his fathers. A mix of traditional Chinese and American traditional, but specializing in dragons.

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Dragon and lady done in 1975.
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Beautiful forearm dragon piece.

Jimmy still tattoos, but most of the pictures on his Instagram are from the 70s-90s if you’re trying to find a portfolio.

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Chinese movie star Andy Lau in 1997.
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Sign for Jimmy’s tattoos in Hong Kong.

There are some differences between Chinese and Japanese dragons, as you’ll see in Jimmy’s work. His dragons usually have 4 claws, which was used in ancient Chinese history for high ranking officials and nobility, while the 3 toed dragons were for common people, as well as the Japanese.

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Eagle and mudan flower from 1982 or 83.

If you can’t make it all the way to Hong Kong for a tattoo you can always get some of Jimmy’s flash off of big cartel here.   tattooflash.bigcartel.com

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Jimmy with some of his flash that you can buy on big cartel.

Tattoo History 6: The Circus/Sideshow and Tattoos

Tattoos were an important part of the sideshow in circuses and carnivals from the end of the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s. Though tattoos didn’t become an integral part of the circus until this later time, tattoos in the circus originated around 1804 (approximately) when Jean Baptiste Cabri (also seen as Kabri) who had been tattooed by the Marquesas in the Pacifics joined a carnival. Jean was a French deserter who fled to the Pacific Islands and lived there with his wife whom he met and married there. He acquired a large number of tattoos while there, all of which had a specific meaning. His tattoos were a mark of entering manhood, and meant that he had been fully accepted as one of the islanders. Jean was discovered on the island by Russian explorers, and after some convincing, went back with them to Europe to tour in a carnival as a heavily tattooed man.

tattoo Jean Baptiste Cabri
Jean Baptiste Cabri

The first tattooed man to be apart of the circus in America was named James F. O’Connell. James was an important part of Barnum’s circus in 1842, specifically in the “freak show”. James was tattooed head to toe in tribal Polynesian style during his time as a prisoner on the Caroline Islands in the South Pacific. James became shipwrecked on the islands and lived apparently by dancing Irish jigs to entertain the local islanders. He was then forcibly tattooed over a period of eight days, and even forced to marry one of the women who tattooed him. After about 5 years on the island another ship finally landed and brought him back to America where he started life in the circus as the first tattooed man in America to be part of the show.

tattoo James F. O'Connell
James F. O’Connell

After O’Connell, a Greek man nicknamed Prince Constantine, and also Captain Constentenus quickly became immensely popular in 1873 due to his extremely heavily tattooed body which at this time was rarely seen. His tattoos covered his hands, neck and face.He reportedly had 388 tattoos. He may have been the most popular and wealthy tattooed circus member of this time, bringing in around one hundred dollar US a week, which was a lot of money for this time. His tattoos included hundreds of animals and small filler pieces all over his body, tattooed over a period of three months with three hours of tattooing being done every morning.

tattoo captain Costentenus
Captain Constentenus/ Prince Constantine

Women also had their place in the circus world of tattoos. Nora Hildebrandt is known as the first tattooed woman to earn a living based on her ink. Nora had an elaborate (but untrue) story of how she got her tattoos. To attract more attention, she claimed that her tattoos were forcibly done on her by “savage Lakota Indians” when in reality she was born in London, and tattooed by her common law husband Martin Hildebrandt. Some thought Martin was her father or her actual husband, but according to numerous sources it looks as though Nora was not actually related to Martin. Martin was one of the first (if not the first) permanent tattoo artist in America, tattooing in New York after tattooing soldiers in the civil war and travelling with the Navy. At just 25 years old Nora was able to make a career for herself in the circus business starting in 1882. Nora is most famous for being in the Barnum and Bailey’s Circus in New York.

tattoo Nora Hildebrandt
Nora Hildebrandt

Women quickly became the more popular option of viewing when it came to seeing tattooed people, as seeing a woman showing skin at this time was scandalous and unheard of. Naturally this alone drew crowds. In the 1920’s one of the more head-turning women in the circus was a woman called Lady Viola. Lady Viola was very popular in part due to her often being known as “The most beautiful tattooed woman in the world” as well as her unique tattoos, some of which were early portrait work of well known people such as Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix, and presidents Wilson, Washington, and Lincoln across her chest.

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Lady Viola

For around 70 years or so, every big circus employed tattooed people as part of the act, showcasing them as freaks or acts just because of their ink, and as part of other acts such as juggling, feats of strength, sword swallowing, fire breathing, and more. Tattooed people made good money travelling with a circus as different circuses had rivalries with each other, so these people could get the best pay from those who wanted them badly enough. Tattoo artists could also make a good living by either travelling with a circus or setting up shop in a location where lots of circuses stopped.

tattoo sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Circus banner by Fred G. Johnson

While tattoos in the circus remained a popular staple in this form of entertainment (even today), they did lose some of their mystery and novelty around the early 1900’s with the invention of the modern electric tattoo machine. Thanks to this machine more and more people were getting tattooed. In order to keep people interested circuses had to step it up a notch. This was done by presenting whole families of tattooed people, tattooed dwarves, motorcycle riders, and even tattooed animals.

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Tattooed family

Popular circus tattoo artists include Stoney St. Claire, who along with being a tattoo artist, was also a sword swallower.

tattoo Stoney St. Claire
Stoney St. Claire

Another artist was Jack Dracula, an artist most famous for working out of Coney Island. Jack was also heavily tattooed himself, and is famous for his facial tattoos, some of which he at least partially did on himself before he realized tattooing his own face would prove a too daunting task.

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Jack Dracula

Charles Wagner was another famous artist responsible for tattooing over 50 people who were, or went on to be tattoo attractions. Charles worked out of New York and is also famous for patenting a tattoo machine, improving upon the new design Samuel O’Reilly had created to make tattooing faster and less painful, as well as more sterile.

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Charles Wagner and a number of his clients

Samuel O’Reilly patented the first “modern” tattoo machine, and also fully tattooed up to 12 ladies in the late 1800’s.

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O’Reilly’s machine

Many of the tattooed people were also at least part time artists themselves, giving them a chance to earn more money.

Tattooing was an extremely important part of the circus world (and still is), and is also in part responsible for how quickly tattooing became popular in North America and some parts of Europe.

Information taken from books:

-Circus Age : Culture and Society under the American Big Top
by Janet M. Davis

– The Life and Adventures of James F. O’Connell, the Tattooed Man by James F. O’Connell

-Twelve Days at Nuku Hiva : Russian Encounters and Mutiny in the South Pacific
by Elena Govor

-Tattooed : The Sociogenesis of a Body Art
by Michael M. Atkinson

-The Greatest Shows on Earth : A History of the Circus
by Linda Simon

and websites:

http://www.thehumanmarvels.com

http://www.vanishingtattoo.com

http://www.tattooarchive.com

Artist of the Month: Daniel Anibal

Daniel Anibal is a talented tattoo artist working out of Atlantico Tattoo and Sagrado Coraz√≥n Tattoo, in Spain. His work is mainly colorful traditional tattoos, but he also does brilliant black and grey work, and some Japanese. His work is bold, bright, and graphic, and often takes influences from Japanese style, mixing it with American traditional.

daniel anibal

Some original flash work by Daniel.

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Brilliant rose on the hand.
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Chest piece full of iconic traditional imagery.
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Full black and grey traditional sleeve brought together with dots and stars.
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Colourful dinosaur head. Blue paired with yellow and red pops brilliantly.
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Bold tropical parrot.
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Womans head and traditional flowers is a classic.
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Full sleeve with Japanese influenced clouds, and an American/Japanese dragon.
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Other side of the sleeve. Lightning looks great against clouds.
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Striking Medusa. Don’t look directly at her…
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Traditional jungle cat!
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Japanese flower and wave sleeve.

Check him out if you’re in the area!