The Civil War Roots of the US Military’s Tattoo Culture

July 23, 2021Matt Fratus
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From the Seaport Museum Exhibition: page from “Souvenirs of the Travels and Experiences of the Original Gus Wagner Globe Trotter & Tattoo Artist” scrapbook, ca. 1897-1941. Photo courtesy of the South Street Seaport Museum.

In 1874, while on assignment in the Nantucket Shoals, a New York Times reporter overheard three brawny sailors in conversation, admiring the ink on each other’s arms.

“Bill, that’s the prettiest picture on your arm I ever see,” one sailor said.

Bill replied, “It’s a sailor and his own true love, and what he always leaves behind him and don’t see no more, and it was put on by the best tattoer [sic] in the United States.”

That tattooer was Martin Hildebrandt, the man whom many historians consider the first professional tattoo artist to set up shop in the United States. The German immigrant’s career began in 1846, and he went on to establish a reputation as one of the most famous tattoo artists of the era. Although his profession was largely taboo at that time — associated with Native Americans, circus performers, and sailors — some of Hildebrandt’s most frequent customers included soldiers and veterans of the American Civil War. 

Still, he wasn’t the easiest person to track down. 

Martin Hildebrandt civil war tattoo coffee or die
Harry DeCoursey, a Brooklyn jeweler whom Martin Hildebrandt and Stephen Lee tattooed in the late 1870s and 1880. DeCoursey (real name William Denny) displayed his full suit of tattoos at Bunnell’s Dime Museum in the Bowery as he told stories, sang, and lectured about tattooing. This is the cover of his “pitch booklet,” a cheaply printed brochure that he sold at his performances. Photo courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society/Facebook.

For two years, the reporter went about his business, with no attempt to locate the tattooist, until a friend in New York City told him about a peculiar paper sign posted above a shop in lower Manhattan. The sign read: “Tattooing Done Here.” 

When the reporter arrived, however, the sign had vanished. Upon further investigation, the reporter learned that policemen in the neighborhood had never seen such a sign, and the postman assigned to that route had never delivered mail to that address. Unwilling to abandon the scoop, however, the reporter looked for clues at the local sailor’s exchange. There, he was given directions to a tavern located on Oak Street, between Oliver and James — a plot of land that now sports a housing project built in the 1950s. The tavern had well-sanded floors and pictures of art and drawings hanging on the wall. 

Inside, the reporter found Hildebrandt, shirtless, with a crucifix inked on his back. The tattoo artist presented the reporter with a book of art, a collection of varied designs he’d crafted over some 30 years.

“The subjects were various,” the reporter, whose name was not mentioned, wrote for The New York Times on Jan. 16, 1876. “If you were an Englishman, Frenchman, a Swede, or a Dane, there was ready for you a young lady, entwining herself in the banners of her country, ready to leave the book, and stamp herself indelibly on your person for life.”

civil war tattoo coffee or die
Examples of tattoo designs and placement in the 19th century, from an old Popular Science Monthly digest from 1895-1896. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While a design from Hildebrandt cost between 50 cents and $2.50 and could take anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes to complete, the artwork was limited.

“It is a pity we are restricted to only two colors, blue and red,” Hildebrandt said. “If we could only get a green to work into a wreath, the contrast would be charming, but I am afraid it can’t be done.”

When war interfered with his livelihood, Hildebrandt brought his unique talents to the Union Army. “During the war times I never had a moment’s idle time,” the tattoo artist told The New York Times. “I must have marked thousands of sailors and soldiers […] I put the names of hundreds of soldiers on their arms or breasts, and many were recognized by these marks after being killed or wounded.” 

Hildebrandt’s tattoo method required about six No. 12 needles, bound together in a slanting form, dipped into India ink. The puncture of the skin was made at an angle, ensuring that the needles pricked only the surface.

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Nora Hildebrandt, left, and Capt. Harry DeCoursey, right, were two clients of Martin Hildebrandt, the first professional tattoo artist to open a shop in America. Photos courtesy of Michelle Myles of Daredevil Tattoo/Wikimedia Commons.

While Hildebrandt was the only Civil War tattoo artist to speak about his profession openly, numerous works of fiction draw on historical facts, providing insights about tattooing during the time. In 1887, Wilbur Hinman, a lieutenant colonel from the 65th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, published the novel Corporal Si Klegg and His “Pard.” In the book, Hinman described the prevalence of tattoos among the Union Army’s rank and file.

“Every regiment had its tattooers, with outfits of needles and India-ink who for a consideration decorated the limbs and bodies of their comrades with flags, muskets, cannons, sabers, and an infinite variety of patriotic emblems and warlike and grotesque devices,” Hinman wrote, continuing, “Thousands of the soldiers had name, regiment, and residence ‘pricked’ into their arms or legs. It was like writing one’s own epitaph, but the custom prevented many bodies from being buried in unknown graves.”

The underground tattoo industry remained prevalent after the war. A “tattooed lady” displayed Hildebrandt’s art while working as the first American tattooed circus attraction in the late 1880s. The tattooed lady’s name was Nora Hildebrandt, and some historical sources suggest she was the tattoo artist’s wife. Others, however, claim the woman adopted the name for celebrity status. Whatever the case, tattooing became a widespread practice that remains a fundamental part of US military culture in the 21st century.

Read Next: How The British ‘Libyan Desert Taxi Service’ Committed Desert Piracy During World War II

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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