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London's First Tattoo Studio: A Revolutionary Legacy

London's First Tattoo Studio: A Revolutionary Legacy

In today's world, tattooing has become a mainstream fashion statement. But rewind to the late 19th century, and it was a daring and unconventional form of art.

Picture this: In the bustling streets of London, amidst the Victorian era's charm, emerged a groundbreaking establishment that forever changed the city's landscape – the first-ever tattoo parlour. 

The Hammam Turkish Baths on Jermyn Street/Photo: Yiwen Li

In the 1880s,  Sutherland Macdonald opened Britain's first tattoo parlour. He was exposed to the Polynesian style of tattooing while serving in the British army. However, it wasn't just his adventurous spirit that set him apart; Macdonald also had the advantage of formal art school training, giving him a refined edge in an otherwise unconventional field.

In the heart of London, Macdonald's studio, nestled above a Turkish bathhouse, became the epicentre of tattoo culture. Situated in the St James's area of Westminster, it served as a sanctuary for individuals looking to decorate their bodies with fine artistry. From nobility to maharajahs, Macdonald's clientele spanned the social spectrum, drawn by his reputation as one of the finest tattoo artists of his time. 

H/T Ufunk and the National Archives.

He distinguished himself by using the term “tattooist” a combination of tattoo and artist, rather than “tattooer,” by donning the formal attire of a gentleman. MacDonald also advanced his career by actively engaging with journalists, persuading them to feature him in favourable magazine and newspaper articles, earning him the title of the "Michelangelo of tattooing." Indeed, in 1894, the Post Office Directory, which served as the Yellow Pages back then, found it necessary to introduce a new professional category to accommodate Macdonald's listing. Remarkably, Macdonald stood as the sole professional listed under this category for a duration of four years.

In 1894, Macdonald revolutionised tattooing by patenting (patent #3035) his electric machine, leaving behind the manual methods of the past.

His impact reached far beyond his pioneering methods, establishing him as a leading figure in shaping the early tattooing scene in Britain.

Thanks to Macdonald's contributions, tattooing went from being an absolutely marginal hobby to gaining the favour of royalty. Notably, McDonald served a distinguished clientele, reportedly tattooing members of royal families, including princes and kings from various European nations. He has made compelling friends along his line of work. 

He began with modest,  decorative images and advanced to creating larger-scale pieces, ranging from Japanese dragons to replicas of renowned salon paintings by artists like William-Adolphe Bouguereau, as well as wildlife depictions by Archibald Thorburn. Notably, one client even had an engraving by landscape artist John Constable permanently inked onto their body.

Here are some of his works during the very early period of professional tattooing in Britain.



Pioneers like him played a pivotal role in reshaping tattooing from an exotic art form, clouded in stigma, into a contemporary practice embraced by individuals from diverse backgrounds. And thanks to their creative genius, what once was seen as a practice only of sailors and soldiers has become an art form that we now see on people across all social strata.

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