Tattoos in memory of people and events have undoubtedly been part of the tattoo repertoire since before recorded time. But some of the earliest written records of American tattooing happen to be of memorial tattoos and specifically those that commemorate the military life, comrades, and patriotism in general. As early as the Civil War, tattooists such as Martin Hildebrandt plied their trade among soldiers near battlefields, shifting from Union to Confederate and back again, as business dictated. Culturally, there seems to have been a commemorative trend in the air since it was also during the Civil War that the celebration of a holiday known initially as Decoration Day was instituted, when citizens placed flowers on the graves of those killed in battle. Today that holiday is known as Memorial Day and has been broadened to include soldiers from every war. While demand for patriotic tattooing may have first flourished during the Civil War, its popularity has risen and fallen for every conflict since.
In the early flash of tattooist C. H. Fellowes, enduring themes which have now become expected in patriotic and memorial tattoos were already in evidence. Fellowes illustrated specific battles such as the sinking of the Confederate cruiser Alabama, a blockade runner which had captured, burned or sank 68 ships in less than two years, but which was finally sunk by the Union’s USS Kearsarge. In fact, both crew and officers of the Kearsarge had stars tattooed on their foreheads to celebrate the victory. In addition to specifics like these however, the broader motifs that are with us yet today had also emerged: scrolled lettering that informs us about the memorial, the national flag, patriotic bunting, stars, stripes, and even the bald eagle. As the name implies though, these are not just symbols of pride or nationalism (although they are that) they are also remembrances. Many times, even when an event is memorialized, it is really the human lives lost or saved that are at the core of the meaning of memorial tattoos. Because of their permanence and sense of personal commitment, tattoos seem the ideal medium for the type of ever-present reminder that those who are memorialized may be gone but they are not, and cannot, be forgotten.