ORIGINS OF ICONIC TATTOO IMAGERY: CLASSIC AMERICAN TATTOOING: PART 2: EAGLES
When looking at classic American tattoos, one is bound to find themselves looking at the feathered face of the eagle at some point. They’re a cornerstone of American tattooing, the Americana style in particular, and have been since the art of tattooing made it’s way to American soil.
Martin Hildebrandt is allegedly the first to establish a tattoo shop in America in 1846. He claimed to have “marked thousands of sailor and soldiers” during the civil war. However, there is little recorded evidence to back the claims of not only his apparent popularity among servicemen, but the existence of his business in general. In 1875, Samuel F. O’Reilly opened a tattoo shop in Catham Square in the Bowery section of New York. This is the first shop in America with a real substantial background. O’Reilly claimed to have apprenticed, at least in part, other artists as well, Ed Smith and Charlie Wagner. He also patented the first electric tattoo machine on December 8, 1891, but that is besides the point.
The earliest readable photo of an eagle tattoo I could find predates 1909, and was done by the aforementioned Samuel O’Reilly. However, on the walls behind O’Reilly and his client, hangs flash—flash which appears to contain drawings of eagles. Therefore, it is safe to assume that eagles were tattooed even before then. In my opinion, tattoos of eagles have been popular since American tattooing came into existence. They’re a highly marketable choice, especially among military servicemen, due to their patriotic symbolism and job-safety (in 1909, the US Navy disapproved of “indecent and obscene” tattoos such as pin-up girls, deeming them “cause for rejection,” though the ‘scandalous’ designs were still popular). Eagle tattoos are and have been widely desired due to their extensive symbolism and the amount of ways in which they can be done; eagles have been known to represent courage, wisdom, spirituality, the patriotism mentioned above, strength, endurance, and pride. That is, of course, not to say that they can’t mean more; “[Meaning] is in the eye of the beholder,” after all.
Eagles continued their reign of popularity throughout the 1910s, 20s, 30s, and have always been especially popular in any time of war. Charlie Wagner tattooed many an eagle upon the skin of a multitude of people until his death in 1953—THAT’S TWO WORLD WARS! That magnitude of eagle-tattooing can be said for the likes of Sailor Jerry. I once heard a story, though the credibility of it is unknown, that stated Sailor Jerry tattooed so many eagles on military kids, he stopped needing to draw it beforehand—he’d freehand one eagle after the other.
In short, eagles have been a popular choice for the subject of tattooing since the art made its way to America. Its variability in terms of style and meaning make it popular amongst military servicemen and regular civilians alike.
Here are some KILLER EAGLES tattooed at our studio by Justin Martinez.