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Amazing Photos Reveal the Work of Britain’s First Tattoo Artist in Victorian Times

Sutherland Macdonald was the first professional tattoo artist in Britain who opened his tattoo studio in 1894.

Sutherland Macdonald Tattoo

The iconic feature of most of the Victorian era pictures is long clothes and stern faces.

However if you look closely in the National Archives, you can found waist down bare bodies of men engulfed in beautiful tattoos. When James Cook travelled to the south pacific his crew was exposed to Polynesian inking culture. From there this inking culture made its way into the society, growing insanely popular over the years. Sutherland Macdonald is the first know professional tattoo artist in Britain.

Sutherland Macdonald Tattoo

Macdonald was first exposed to tattooing in 1880’s when he was serving in the British army.

He started his career as a professional tattoo artist when he left the army. He began practising tattooing with hand tools. Being an accomplished artist, he got along with the needles just fine. By 1889 he was operating a tattoo parlour out of the Hamam Turkish Baths at 76 Jermyn Street in London.

Sutherland Macdonald Tattoo

The term of a tattoo artist was never heard of at that time. In fact, the 1894 Post Office Directory had to include a new professional category to enlist Macdonald’s business.

The term “Tattooist”, a combination of tattoo and artist, was coined for the first time. He was the sole entrepreneur under this category for almost four years. Matt Lodder, a lecturer at the University of Essex, explains, “While tattooing was going on, there is no evidence of another professional studio in Britain at the time, working on paying customers.”  

Sutherland Macdonald Tattoo

Although he started off tattooing with hand tools, he soon developed an electric tattooing machine which was patented in 1894 in Britain.

Sutherland Macdonald Tattoo

In 1897 Strand Magazine article written by Gambier Bolton it was quoted,“that for shading or heavy work Macdonald still used Japanese tools, ivory handles and all”.

Macdonald was a brilliant artist of his time. His meticulous tattoo designs are the works of wonder. He had his share of glamour and aristocratic clients. His clientele included several sons of Queen Victoria as well as the kings of Norway and Denmark.

Sutherland Macdonald Tattoo

George Burchett writes in his famous book, Memoirs of a Tattooist

“For nearly forty years crowned heads and famous people climbed the narrow staircase in Jermyn Street to visit Macdonald and to leave bearing some of the most wonderful ornaments ever placed on human skin.” He continues explaining this wonderful artist of character and class, “A well-spoken, intelligent and gentle man, Sutherland Macdonald made friends of his customers, who treated him as an equal.”

Sutherland Macdonald Tattoo

Macdonald has done a wonderful job to blow our mind with his amazing tattoo designs.

It’s incredible how he managed to draw these meticulous designs without the help of any modern tools. He not only pioneered the art of tattooing but also elevated its status to the heights of a respectable profession.

Sutherland Macdonald Tattoo

The following images are part of the exhibition Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed, which shows the amazing art of Sutherland Macdonald.

 

Sutherland Macdonald Tattoo

 

Sutherland Macdonald Tattoo

All images via The National Archives.

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