About This Artifact
One aspect of life at sea that has left a permanent mark on history is that of tattooing. Though relatively little is known about the life of C. H. Fellowes, a master tattoo artist who completed the bulk of his work in the early 1900s, his influence on the industry has left a lasting impression.
The art of tattooing long predates sea travel, stretching as far back as the Paleolithic age. It's believed that tattooing became a more standard part of a seafarer's life during travel to, and through, the Pacific during the 18th Century. During this time, sailors came into contact with Polynesians who had extensively covered themselves with body art. Many years later as the process evolved, it seemed to follow sailors around in their travels, providing them with a way to document the experiences they had on land and sea. Similar to how the process works today, the design was traced onto the subject's skin, then transferred to the skin by multiple tiny needles which were tied together. The skin surface was made taut and the tattooist would go over the outline using his multi-pronged tool. Chinese ink and Indian black ink were used most often in the inking process, though both vermilion and laundry bluing were also incorporated for coloring purposes. This was a very painful process and could take multiple sittings to complete, depending on the intricacy of the design. Once a session was complete, the blood and medium used for coloring would be washed off, and then the work would be cleaned with anything from water, to rum, to in some cases, urine.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the process of tattooing evolved further. It became extremely popular in port cities like Boston and New York, which were home to naval yards and bustling seaports. Based in Boston, C. H. Fellowes found lots of work and an excellent market for his artistry. Fellowes' work came at a time when the process of tattooing was improving overall. In addition to an availability of competent artists, methods of tattooing had also evolved to be less painful. Socialites fancied this trend, and the demand for tattoo artists increased as it became popular with the upper class. Men and women alike sought out artists to have tattoo work done on their bodies. In Fellowes' case, it is believed that he may have traveled on vessels for at least some period of time tattooing sailors, which would explain the lack of historical documentation of his life throughout this time. Like many artists of this era, Fellowes recorded sketches in a flash book, which surfaced in Providence in 1966, when it was discovered by an antique dealer. The book served as a quick reference of Fellowes' designs, so those seeking to have work done could see the type of work the artist did.
Though an exact date is unknown, sketches done by Fellowes of ship battle scenes from the Spanish-American War suggest he began tattooing around 1898. His first official work was dated November 8, 1900. The flash book includes 114 pages of sketches and ideas for tattoos. Most all of the work included in the flash book was done in ink - red, brown and black - though a few of the sketches are also done in pencil. Fellowes favored nautically themed designs, incorporating anchors, lighthouses, and ships regularly. These types of subjects are classic representations of America's connections to the sea, and in addition to tattoos, they commonly appear in many other forms of popular art and objects. Fellowes' work featured different depictions of life at sea, often displayed through different battle scenes of warships such as the USS Hartford or USS Iowa in action. Many of the images used by Fellowes and other tattoo artists were patriotic in nature. Among these, Fellowes' designs included Bunker Hill, the sinking of the Maine and The Battle of the USS Kearsarge & the CSS Alabama. Fellowes touched on religion as well, as evidenced by sketches of crosses, and even a crucifixion scene. Among his repeated depictions of the American Army and Navy, Fellowes drew America and England shaking hands. His work also included dragons, horses, different representations of women, hearts, and sweetheart initials.
The designs featured in Fellowes' flash book emphasize important values of the time period. Virtue, honor, strength, liberty, victory, and patriotism are repeated again and again, spelled out in words and implied through battle scenes, waving flags and dedications. Fellowes' style and the designs he developed in the early 1900s are still seen today, as tattoo flash from that time period adorns the walls of different tattoo parlors. By transferring sailor experiences to the skin, Fellowes indeed left a permanent mark on the tattoo industry and paved the way for many other artists who have come to follow in his footsteps.
Questions for Further Thought
- How is Fellowes' work representative of American values at the turn of the century?
- Compare and contrast the early process of tattooing with the process today. How and why have advances in technology revolutionized the process of getting a tattoo?
- How can a tattoo tell a story? What do the images created by C. H. Fellowes (as seen in his flashbook) do to contribute to the telling of his own life story?