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  • Writer's pictureScott Glazier

Origins of Tattooing in Los Angeles

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

Hello speakeasy readers!

Today is the 24th of march 2023. If you're from L.A. you already know the type of non sense we've been putting up with from the weather. Now From inside the storm clouds, we'll take another deep dive into the shallow end on a topic that actually interests me personally. The origins of tattooing in southern California.

Los Angeles has been a center of American culture for some time. One industry that is not an exception is the tattoo market. From its beginnings in the late 19th century

to the thriving industry it is today, the history of tattooing in Los Angeles is long and fascinating. Today we will explore a few key figures in the origins, rise to prominence, and current state of tattooing in Los Angeles. We might not hit every single topic, but I think the artists I've chosen to write about are the most pivotal. Understanding this historical context will reveal the profound impact that L.A. has had on our industry in the United States and globally.

In 1891, Charles Wagner opened the first tattoo shop in Los Angeles, kicking off the city's long-standing tattooing tradition. Wagner fought as a sailor in the American Navy.

After learning about traditional Japanese

tattooing, he decided to venture into business for himself. Soon after, a slew of other tattoo artists descended upon Los Angeles. By 1900, the city had at least a dozen ink shops.

Most tattoo customers were sailors and soldiers initially, but by the 1920s, the trend caught on. This was primarily the result of the "Roaring Twenties,"

a time of profound social and economic change in the United States. Increased freedom and disposable income made tattooing more accessible, and the practice quickly evolved into a symbol of autonomy and rebellion. Celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable openly flaunting their ink only increased tattoo popularity in the L.A. area. Getting inked became more mainstream and, therefore, more common.

Outer Limits Tattoo’s Long Beach location is the oldest continuously operated tattoo shop in the United States and the second oldest in the world. Its 88 year history is trailblazing, crossed by countless legendary tattoo artists.

The shop is the last remaining business in the original historic area of Long Beach called The Pike. Bert Grimm bought the studio and dubbed the parlor BERT GRIMM'S WORLD FAMOUS TATTOO STUDIO.

Bert was a super well-known, yet reclusive tattoo artist who had shops in Oregon and St. Louis before settling in Long Beach, California. He's considered one of the founding fathers of the American Traditional style. He was famous for his large scale tattoo work like full back pieces, sleeves, and even full body suits.

​While researching this and putting some pieces together, I found out that Don Ed Hardy was born in Costa Mesa, CA. He was a student of Sailor Jerry and that led to him studying tattooing in Japan in 1973, with the Japanese classical master Horihide.

He became recognized for merging Japanese tattoo aesthetics/techniques into his American style work. When Ed was about 10 or 11, he frequented 22 Chestnut Place, aka Bert Grimm's on The Pike. Grimm said, "Well, when you're 15, I'll teach you to tattoo." "So I learned how to draw, but then I drifted off to other things. I started stand-up surfing and my life took a different direction. And then I got really serious about art when I turned 16 and realized it was my destiny."- ed hardy

Now let's introduce Mark Mahoney. He worked on The Pike from 1980-1984. Currently, he owns the Shamrock Social Club on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Mahoney started his tattoo career in Boston in 1977 (when tattooing was illegal). He was a pivotal force during the 1980s black and grey movement, and tattooed some of Hollywood's biggest names. He has always been attracted to the idea that tattoos are "art for people"

which i think translates to, art for the everyday person. He is most known for his black and grey work, and images of religious icons, old school collages, girls, bombs, and guns.

Tattoos are insanely popular in Los Angeles today. It is no secret that this city is home to some of the world's most famous tattoo artists, and their careers thrive. The city is home to over 500 tattoo shops, many catering to clients with specific tattoo tastes. Additionally, the city hosts the L.A. Ink Expo and other internationally renowned tattoo conventions, which attract tens of thousands of visitors. Even more convincing is that many famous people flaunt their tattoos publicly, making them a common form of creative expression and self-expression in the Los Angeles area.

As early as the late 19th century, Los Angeles was a hub for vibrant tattoo culture. Since then, it has become a central economic hub and is home to some of the world's most renowned tattoo artists. The fact that Los Angeles is known for tattoo-related conventions and events further proves the city's importance. Because of this influence, tattooing has exploded in popularity. Now people from all over the world travel to the city's famous tattoo parlors to get tattooed. Thanks to its long history, diverse culture, and thriving ink scene, Los Angeles will maintain a pivotal position in the tattoo industry for the foreseeable future.


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