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May 29, 2017

Tatted Up in Victorian Times: Fascinating Photos Show the Work of Sutherland Macdonald, One of the First British Tattoo Artists

Victorian pictures always show stern-looking faces with people covering their bodies from head to toe in long clothes. But vintage images have revealed how some people living in 19th century Britain had a love of huge tattoos covering their entire chests and arms. And all of the pictures from the Victorian era show the inkings carried out by one of the first ever tattoo artists – Sutherland Macdonald.

Sutherland Macdonald was considered by many to be one of the greatest artists in the history of tattooing. It is said that his first exposure to tattooing was in the British Army in the 1880s. Already being an accomplished artist, Macdonald picked up the tattoo needles with ease. It was after getting out of the army that he started tattooing professionally. He worked first with hand tools, and in 1894 received a British patent for his electric tattooing machine. An 1897 Strand Magazine article written by Gambier Bolton stated, "that for shading or heavy work Macdonald still used Japanese tools, ivory handles and all".

Macdonald's first shop was located in Aldershot, England. He later moved to London and set up shop at the #76 Jermyn Street, upstairs from a Turkish bath. He spent the rest of his career at this location.

Sutherland Macdonald was at the forefront of the early 1900s tattoo fad, and probably did his share of cosmetic tinting. Because of his years as a tattooing sergeant-major in the Royal Engineers, George Burchett felt that Macdonald had an advantage over him in the competition to tattoo the "leisured people of taste". George Burchett wrote about Macdonald in his book, Memoirs of a Tattooist.
"He had already tattooed officers in many of the famous regiments, including the Brigade of Guards. One of his earliest clients, Lord Byng of Vimy, when a young officer in the 10th Hussare, introduced Macdonald to scores of young bloods in his circle. When Macdonald exchanged his sergeant-major's uniform for the white coat of a full-time tattoo artist he was already assured of a good following."
Sutherland Macdonald's contributions to the tattoo world went farther than art and celebrity. As stated earlier, he was granted a British patent for a tattooing machine (patent #3035), although it may have had too many moving parts to be practical. He is also sometimes credited for adding blues and greens to the tattooist palate.

Sutherland Macdonald died in 1937.

In one of his most intricate tattoos, Sutherland inked two female figures on a man’s back.

An inking showing Cupid and Psyche on the back of a Victorian man.

A Victorian man proudly displays a dragon tattoo that adorns his entire chest.

This dramatic tattoo shows birds of prey swooping down on their catch.

One man appears to be so proud of his family’s coat of arms, he had it tattooed across his chest.

Inspired by wildlife one man got Sutherland to ink his arm with a snake and a frog.

This full sleeve tattoo by Sutherland shows a Japanese fishing scene.

This floral design of chrysanthemums carries all the way up this man’s arm.

One man poses with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth as he shows of his Indian on horseback inking.

A younger man has his entire chest covered in a tattoo showing a female winged figure as well as dragons and a snake.

(Images: The National Archives, via The Sun)


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