There was a time when tattoos symbolized a rebellious culture. Back when the tattoo industry was still in its infancy, a vast majority of the inked community were criminals, sideshow freaks or military. It was only a matter of time until their inked skin was associated to a life of danger and defiance. In some ways, that still applies today. But tattoos are much more than a medium to express counter-culture. It’s become a way to reveal personalities, dedicate undying love, showcase art and eternalize memories. For these reasons, and many others, tattoos have become a mainstay, encompassing all corners and communities around the globe. One such community that has a long running history with the artform is the military.
Tattoos and the military are old friends. The friendship stretches back as far as the 18th century when explorers brought back tattooed Polynesians from the South Pacific. The patterns on their skin became inspiration. In fact, early naval sailors would come home with skin tattooed as souvenirs from the distant lands they visited. Thus began the evolution of the tattoo.
The skin art grew in demand as a result of technological advancements that included the first tattoo machine in 1891. In the following years, tattooing continued its steady growth in popularity. Until August “Cap” Coleman landed ashore in the navy town of Norfolk in 1918, and changed the fate of the art forever. There, Coleman redefined the tattoo and inspired other burgeoning artists during the Golden Age of tattoo.
His distinct style and quality of work captured the attention of Paul Rogers, a mill worker and part-time tattoo artist who, at the time, had been working with a traveling show. Rogers would one day become a significant pioneer in iron and ink. He would later redefine tattoos with his machinery and legendary partnerships including the iconic Spaulding & Rogers and Jacksonville’s own Inksmith & Rogers. Both men have shared countless experiences with sailors and soldiers wishing to be inked throughout their career.
Angelo Miller, a tattoo artist at Jacksonville Beach’s Inksmith & Rogers credits 10 percent of the shop’s customers to be military personnel. This might change as the result of a new tattoo policy. The Army’s recently redefined regulation eliminates size and quantity restrictions. As a result, the Pentagon hopes the updated policy will help increase recruitment.
Statistics show that while tattoos vary between individuals, a theme is common among military inks. That theme is surprisingly not Americana or military. When asked what was the most interesting military tattoo he’d done was, Miller replied, “the number of confirmed sniper kills on a soldier’s arm.”
With the new update in effect, tattoo artists might expect an increase in inking more service men and women, and with Jacksonville having the third largest military presence in the nation, ink shops like Inksmith & Rogers or Caribbean Connection might have a growing military clientele coming their way. With that, it’s safe to say that tattoos are now a common fixture in the military and American culture.