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The Cultural History Of Tattoos, Explained

Tattoo Uprising is a new documentary that explores the evolution of the tattooing phenomenon.

The Cultural History Of Tattoos, Explained
Tattoo flash by C. J. Eddy/ Courtesy of Documentary Arts

These days, it seems like tattoos are everywhere, but the question remains: where exactly did they come from, and how did they get to where they are today? Tattoo Uprising is a new feature-length documentary that sets out to answer that question. Like a collection of tattoos on a person’s body, the film is patchwork quilt of a movie combining photos, sound bites, film clips, and video tidbits, all in an effort to chart the trajectory of tattoos throughout history and into modern society.

Spoiler alert. Filmmaker Alan Govenar first became interested in tattoos when taking a folklore class in college. To fulfill course requirements, he found himself wandering into Leonard “Stoney” St. Clair’s tattoo shop. “This was, for me, at that time, like being in the middle of a Franz Kafka novel,” says Govenar in the film. For the filmmaker, going to St. Clair’s shop became a weekly ritual for over five years, and meetings with the feisty tattoo master evolved into a book and short film, Stoney Knows How, shot by legendary filmmaker Les Blank.

The Cultural History Of Tattoos, Explained
Gus Wagner tattoos his wife, Maude, in St. Louis, Missouri, February 1904/ Courtesy of Documentary Arts

As Governor completed the short documentary in 1980, he set out to assemble a larger story that would include even more luminaries of the tattoo industry. The result is Tattoo Uprising, which even features a cameo by Werner Herzog, who came into the picture as Blank shot Burden of Dreams while Herzog himself filmed Fitzcarraldo. In Tattoo Uprising, Herzog recounts how he went to San Francisco and visited Ed Hardy, a “strange but very intriguing” man who tattooed Herzog with a black-and-white image of death laughing. Herzog goes on to make the case for why tattooing is a true art: “It has to do with ritual. It’s a very, very deep-rooted, kind of atavistic, archetypical kind of self-expression, I think.”

As the 77-minute film winds through a series of interviews with the likes of Ed Hardy, Cynthia Witkin, Calamity Jane, Anne de Hey! and others, it touches on the history of tattoos themselves, from decorating the skins of our primitive ancestors to covering the bodies of sailors, side-show performers, incarcerated individuals, and now, the general public. A particularly refreshing aspect of Tattoo Uprising is the special attention that’s paid to female tattoo artists, whose styles offer a dramatic departure and stylistic counterpoint to the classic American-style tattoo that defined the work of Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy, to name a few.

The Cultural History Of Tattoos, Explained
Tattoo by Tintin on the back of Valerie’s neck/ Photograph by Alan Govenar, courtesy of Documentary Arts.

Tattoo Uprising offers an eye-opening look at a practice that was once scorned and relegated to a few outliers of society, to a full-fledged industry that is all but ubiquitous in today’s day and age. In this way, it’s an engaging if not exhaustive examination of the practice of using ink to mark bodies with indelible designs.

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