WYOMING AND TATTOOING were "discovered" by white people at roughly the same time. Two thousand years ago, Wyoming was a place nomadic people traveled to when they needed bison for food or quartzite to make sharp things. The people who came here took what they needed and traveled on or went back to wherever they came from. Alkali ponds and fish fossils were the only souvenirs of Wyoming's prehistory, the epochs and eras during which most of the state had been covered by a saltwater lake that gradually dried up like affection soured.
Two thousand years ago, permanent body alteration, usually in the form of tattooing or scarification, was common in non-Western cultures, often done as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Tattoos signified a person's character and status within a society. The process was painful and time-consuming, but attention spans were considerably longer then, distractions were markedly fewer. A tattoo could be made with anything sharp enough to break the skin-metal, if you had it, sharpened rock or serrated shell and bone if you didn't-and soot was usually the main ingredient in any pigment.
In 1769, Captain James Cook, an English explorer, brought home tales of the practice of "ta-tu" in Tahiti, and his stories were illustrated by some of the members of his crew who had gotten tattoos as souvenirs of their journey. To make this Tahitian mark, a narrow piece of wood inlaid with a series of fish bones was dipped into pigment, placed against the skin, and tapped with a rod held in the tattooist's other hand. On his second voyage to Tahiti, Captain Cook brought back a tattooed man called Omai, who evolved from tribal royalty to sideshow freak as he stepped ashore. Eventually, European sailors attached magical powers to tattooing; a pig tattoo on the top of one foot and a chicken tattoo on the top of the other were thought to be a charm against drowning. Instead of fish bones, needles bound to a piece of metal or wood were used to make the mark.
In America, Wyoming still wasn't a popular place, mostly because of its inhospitable climate and the distances between watering places. Bison fared better a few hundred miles to the east, and intertribal wars kept the human population down. There were fewer than ten thousand nomadic Native Americans inhabiting Wyoming when the white people showed up.
The United States has a history of losing its innocence and then forgetting all about what happened. The West wasn't America's only frontier; it wasn't even America's first. By the time Americans got around to the West, most of a continent had been purchased or conquered in a collie-wobble cadence of falling wilderness and rising settlements. In the early 1800s, explorers returned from the wilderness west of the Mississippi River with dreamy stories of landscapes unlike anything anyone had ever seen; the West was a real-life Garden of Eden, full of promise and sublime in the antiquated sense of the word. The West was America's first last frontier. There was a market for this.
The West was packaged like a presidential candidate and airbrushed into porn-star perfection. Its virtues were writ larger than life, and everything else was embellished, forgotten, or reinvented until the West became synonymous with easy money and self-fulfillment. It came complete with celebrity endorsements and the limited warranty of the Homestead Act. As frontiers went, this was new! And improved! And advertised around the world.
Surveyors traversed the Continental Divide in 1855, mapping out the path of the railroad tracks that would connect both coasts. The government gave the railroad twelve million acres along the route, compensation for laying the tracks that would undoubtedly lead to the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny-the decree, supposedly straight from God, that the United States had not only a right but a duty to expand across the continent. This expansion would certainly culminate in the collective achievement of the American Dream.
For the next fifty years or so, most Americans invested such hope in the romantic version of the West that, when they saw it first hand, they refused to consider the possibility that their expectations might be foiled by topography, climate, or the vagaries of weather. Even when everything about the West turned out to be harsher than advertised, it was idyllic in one way or another, seasonally romantic, and more promising than already civilized places. Most settlers stuck it out with the idea of making a better life for their children, if not for themselves, combined with religious beliefs that left little room for laziness or giving up. The same faith painted death as a reward, and probably it was, more often than not. Thinking of the future meant thinking of one's children and heaven, not necessarily in that order.
As the populations of frontier settlements grew, the more ascetic pioneers moved on, the crybabies moved back to civilization, and those who were left welcomed their new, not-so-brave neighbors with barn raisings, baked goods, and quilting bees. These new neighbors made places for themselves on land that had been gentled but not tamed. They took their time clearing roads, building homes, and rotating crops; it was clear they weren't moving on anytime soon.
BY THAT TIME, on the other side of the world, members of Maori tribes in New Zealand augmented traditional Oceanic tattoos with the art of moko, facial tattoos that were carved into the skin with chisels in a manner that left the freshly tattooed person eating through a funnel for quite some time. Every moko was unique, based upon the different contours of each face. Moko combined cultural meaning and individual self-expression for the first time in the history of tattooing.
Moko evolved from a symbol of social status into a symbol of economic success, until anyone who could afford to pay the tattoo artist could buy a moko. The painful and elaborate chiseling involved in the moko technique was unique to the Maori, and, because it more closely resembled their woodcarvings than the needle-poked tattoos with which they adorned themselves from the neck down, it was unique to tattooing.
While Maori tribes battled amongst themselves in the 1800s, enterprising Europeans took advantage of the Maori predilection for decapitating prisoners of war. The act of beheading was more important to the warring tribes than the pieces of people it created, and traders picked up souvenirs from both friend and foe. Tattooed Maori heads were smoked like hams and bartered like trading cards.
The entrepreneurial gusto of the European collectors was matched by the tendency of some of the Maori to increase the value of their severed and smoked merchandise with the posthumous creation or enhancement of the mokos on their enemies' faces.
On another side of the world, Japanese tattooing could be traced back as far as tattooing in any tribal culture, with similar primitive geometrical marking and ritualistic importance, not to mention the function-over-form tattoos on the hands and faces of Japanese divers, which were intended to frighten large fish away. From there, Japanese tattooing grew into a punishment by the seventeenth century, with facial tattoos serving as irrefutable proof that someone had done something legally unforgivable.
A century later, respectable Japanese people had nothing to do with tattooing, nor did they have anything to do with those who traveled in such indecent circles. The discovery of a single, small tattoo carried with it the same immediate snubbing as the discovery of an entirely tattooed torso or more; a person was either tattooed or not tattooed, period. Some Japanese people, though, cared very little about respectability, and those who were tattooed weren't confined to particular designs or cultural rites. The rise in popularity of full-body tattoos was part art and part reaction to the injustice of government-sanctioned vanity once the emperor decreed that only members of royalty were permitted to wear ornate clothing. By the early 1800s, Japanese tattooing was usually a well-kept secret by both tattoo artists and those people who invested the three to five years necessary to acquire the now-traditional irezumi full-body tattoo.
In 1869, near the end of the Edo period, Europeans and Americans took an interest in Asia, and tattooing in Japan was officially forbidden with the efficient guilt of a hasty housecleaning before unexpected guests arrive.
THE TRANSCONTINENTAL railroad reached Wyoming in 1868, connecting the east coast with the west at the rate of ten or fifteen miles of track each day. The distance between settlements was calculated according to the ground an engine could cover befoer its boilers ran out of steam. For the first time, railroad construction preceded civilization, an anticipation of need instead of a response. Once the Union Pacific Railroad decided that Laramie City would be the next stop on the line, the railroad began selling plotted lots of prairie. Within a week, four hundred lots in Laramie City were sold, and it wasn't long before five hundred buildings had been constructed, some of them tents, some of them log, none of them built to last.
Three months later, a community that was previously nonexistent had swollen to five thousand people, most of whom were gamblers, thieves, and prostitutes bent on swindling the few law-abiding citizens.
WHILE LARAMIE CITY was experiencing its raucous beginnings, tattooists were opening professional shops in New York and San Francisco. Laramie was nothing like these urbane coastal cities. It was nothing like civilized. Laramie was governed by a band of outlaws. Asa Moore was the most notorious ne'er-do-well, proclaiming himself mayor and ruling Laramie like a violent monarch with a twisted sense of humor. No one was too good to die, his reasoning seemed to go, and he had a gang of henchmen ready to back him up. He presided over the town from a canvas-topped wooden saloon cheerfully referred to as the "Bucket O' Blood." Wyoming was part of the Dakota Territory then, but Laramie straightened up considerably when Wyoming became a territory of its own. The more lawful citizens of Laramie formed a vigilante mob and went after Asa Moore-soon to become the "late" mayor of Laramie-and his gang. They lynched whoever seemed in need of a good lynching and got a civilized hand on the politics in town.
When the railroad came through Wyoming, Chief Washakie's Shoshone tribe had agreed to move out of the path of civilization, onto the Wind River Reservation one hundred miles north of the tracks. Over the course of the next few years, most of Wyoming's other Native Americans were shunted off to reservations in neighboring territories. In 1878, the government decided to merge two previously warring tribes. They packed up the remaining members of the Northern Arapaho and moved them to Wind River to work out their differences with the Shoshone. Wyoming had only one reservation, which was something to be proud of then.
Wyoming became a state in 1890, the same year a New York tattooist, Samuel O'Reilly, was in the process of inventing the first electric tattoo machine, which he patented the following year. This machine was similar to one Thomas Edison had invented for an altogether different purpose, an electric stencil-maker used to punch holes in paper embroidery patterns. The industrialization of tattoo technology lessened the pain and time involved in the tattoo process and sparked an increase in popularity on both sides of the needle.
In the 1920s, Lew Alberts, a wallpaper maker, began reproducing sheets of tattoo designs (known as "flash") and selling them to tattoo parlors. Alberts is responsible for the traditional iconography of tattoo designs-hearts, flowers, animals, skulls, comic figures, dragons, images of religion and sex and allegiance to one group or another. During the 1920s and 1930s, tattooing was a common practice on both coasts, especially popular with soldiers and sailors; an article in a 1936 issue of Life magazine estimated that one in ten Americans had at least one tattoo. Interest in tattooing declined steadily after World War II, and by the time it was resurrected by bikers in the 1950s, tattooing was downright unpopular, which was why bikers liked it.
I was born in the 1960s, the same decade that spawned the Tattoo Renaissance. At the time, tattooing was still a marginalized activity, but educated artists who worked with other media were choosing skin for canvas, bringing a new sensibility to tattooing-more art than craft-and some of the people getting tattoos were interested in the possibilities of tattooing as an art form. The electric tattoo machine has remained virtually unchanged since its patent, but most every other technical element-especially pigments, flash, and sterilization procedures-were improving at a rapid pace. By 1970, tattoos had left the biker cliques and were heading for the mainstream, sometimes as art, sometimes for shock value.
In 1973, an Arab oil embargo tripled the average price of crude oil. Wyoming had more underground oil reserves than any other state, most of them located beneath rugged terrain owned by people who lived in other places. Before the oil embargo, the exertion of mining these reserves wasn't worth the effort, but in the 1970s Wyoming's resources were finally worth extracting. Mine shafts were dug, hillsides were flayed open, and the earth inside was divided into what was valuable (which was hauled away) and what was not (which was left behind like a big wad of God's chewing gum).
Copyright © 2003 by Karol Griffin
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.