We are in a Golden Age for tattoo art. But this wasn’t always so!
The discovery of “Otzi the Iceman” in the Alps gives us proof that the act of tattooing existed at least as far back as 5,000 years ago! In most cultures, for a majority of those 5,000 years, having a tattoo was taboo, only suitable for those considered to be lesser members of society such as criminals, war prisoners and slaves.
It’s believed, for example, that the ancient Chinese, considered tattooing to be barbaric. But, hey, life can be barbaric sometimes, and so the Chinese often tattooed criminals on the face to warn other members of society to beware.
Some ancient empires extended the punishment to slaves, as well as to the defeated armies of their enemies. When the Greeks defeated the Samians in the Fifth Century B.C.E., they tattooed each and every one of those loser Samians with the same(ian) emblem: an owl, the iconic symbol of Athens. (Don’t worry, when the Samians later defeated the Greeks, they returned the favor by tattooing their Athenian prisoners with the image of a Samian warship.)
But the stigma attached to tattoos didn’t die easily. In America, during the 1910s, it was basically sailors, criminals and “circus freaks” who sported body art. In the 1920s, women — needing an affordable alternative to expensive cosmetics — used tattoos as a way to create the perfect lip liner or eyebrows. But they had to be careful. Tattoos were scandalous, so no one could know that was how they arrived at their beautiful brows.
Things began to change in the 1930s, but the impetus was surprising. You see, the first social security numbers were issued in 1936. The government encouraged citizens to memorize their number, but geez, so many dang digits! What was a person to do?
Have their number tattooed to themselves, obviously. And society didn’t frown at this type of marking because, hey, you were just being practical!
A study at the time tried to tie tattoos to dark and repressed sexual desires, but social security numbers proved just a little stronger (obviously?) and the door to acceptance was opened just a crack.
In the 1940s, patriotic tattoos with a military or nautical focus gained in popularity due to World War II, and as more women went to work and were exposed to the wider world, a very small number of them also got tattooed. This happened just as mixing pigments added more colors to an artist’s repertoire, making more appealing options available to the consumer.
This is about the time we start seeing permanent tattoo shops pop up in New Orleans. (Before that, artists tended to migrate from city to city.) In 1955, George Pinell — nicknamed “The Professor” and “Old Man” because of his status in the local electric tattooing scene — opened up a tiny shop under the Canal Street ferry terminal. It was so tiny that a stretched customer would have their leg partially outside the space.
Norms were changing, but there was still an assumption that — if you had a tattoo — there was something unsavory about you. Jail time? Gang member? And that was reflected in Pinell’s response to a question in an interview for a 1958 Times-Picayune article. What was his most popular tattoo, he was asked: The answer? Still social security numbers!
But, in the decades since, the tattoo industry has slowly but surely made its way into the mainstream, fueled in large part by celebrities getting tattoos of their own (those of a certain age may remember how Pamela Anderson’s barbed-wire armband tattoo kicked off a craze in the ‘90s.)
That brings us to today’s renaissance, where more than one in five Americans have at least one tattoo, and where there are more than 20,000 tattoo parlors in the country. (With one being added, on average, every single day!)
That’s a lot of choices! Which is why I’m here to try to lend a hand.
Maybe you’re ready to get your first tattoo (or second or tenth) and you don’t know where to go. I talked to some very local New Orleanians and came up with a list of some of the best spots to get your ink in New Orleans. And, while it’s true the development of our city’s tattoo scene primarily existed within larger trends, we do have an important first.
And that’s where we’ll start our list!
Guide to New Orleans Tattoo Shops
Aart Accent Tattoos & Piercing // Treme
Opened just lakeside of the French Quarter in 1976, Aart Accent isn’t just the oldest still-active tattoo shop in the city (which it is). Its founder and owner, Jacci Gresham, also happens to be the first Black female tattoo artist in all of America.
With a background in drawing and architecture, Gresham is renowned for her beautiful penmanship, and her ability to turn what the customer sees on paper into what they see on their body, despite the challenges present when tattooing curvilinear places.
With those skills and a long list of satisfied customers, it’s no wonder Where Y’at Magazine has rated Aart Accent the best tattoo shop in New Orleans for three consecutive years.
Electric Ladyland // Marginy
Courtney Gullo has had a couple of not-ideal tattoo experiences. So, when she went to Electric Ladyland on Frenchmen, she could tell immediately that the experience was going to be different.
“You could just tell they really cared about the tattoo I wanted to get, and what it meant to me,” Gullo explained. “That investment was such a welcome change from some other shops.”
Talk to most anyone who’s been to one of Electric Ladyland’s 10 tattooing stations and you’ll hear something similar: the staff is friendly, attentive and — to Gullo’s point — caring. You can’t beat that.
Treasure Tattoo // Marigny
Getting a tattoo is a big decision. So, for Whitney Soenksen, a little patience goes a long way.
“I’ve been to shops where they get frustrated with me because I didn’t show up with the design in the correct format, as if I was supposed to magically know how they want it,” she said. “Or they’ll question my decision on the tattoo choice I’ve obviously thought a lot about. So when I get that kind of snark, I’m running out the door.”
But that’s never been an issue for Soenkensen at Treasure Tattoo on St. Claude Avenue in the Marigny.
“It’s so different there. They have multiple convenient ways for me to submit the image, they showed nothing but patience with me when I struggled to find the artwork on my phone, and she even was totally willing to touch up some old tattoos for me.”
Customers celebrate the reasonable prices, the flexible availability and the fact that the owner is — according to Soenksen — “a badass, inspiring woman-entrepreneur.”
“Plus,” she added, “there’s a small puppy in the store to calm your nerves, and nothing works better than that!”
Downtown Tattoo // Downtown
Open since 2012, Downtown Tattoo is creating a buzz with nine artists in their shop, providing decades of experience.
The large number of artists allows for a wide variety of styles, inspired from as far away as Africa and biblical times, or as near as the Caribbean and right here in NOLA!
To get a feel for what you’re looking for — or which tattooist might serve you best — there are copious examples of each individual artist’s work in a photo gallery on their website.
New Orleans Tattoo Museum & Studio // Central City
Want some history with your tattoo? Co-owners Don Lucas and Adam Montegut have done an incredible job curating a comprehensive history of electric tattooing in New Orleans.
The New Orleans Tattoo Museum & Studio uses artifacts and research to take guests on a comprehensive journey from the early days of migrant tattoo artists, to the city’s first shops, and all the way to the growing body art culture of today.
It’s really a special place to check out, even if you’re not looking to get a tattoo of your own.
But, if you are, they do that really well, too. You can view Montegut’s extensive portfolio online.
Tattoo Temple // Mid City
Natasha Schmidt and Rachel Robinson opened Tattoo Temple in 2014 in Mid City, and for the last five years, their focus has been on providing a welcoming and professional atmosphere in which their employees enjoy creating and their customers feel comfortable.
Take a look at their their artists’ portfolios on Instagram, and then go to their Request an Appointment page to book a time.
It won’t take long for you to understand why their diverse range of artwork and their clean, cozy shop has become a Mid-City favorite.
Black Pelican Tattoo Studio // Harahan
This Harahan tattoo studio features some great local artists, including Katie Rhoden. Rhoden appeared on Season 10 of the long-running tattoo reality show “Ink Master” and was a featured participant back in 2019 when the Villain Arts Tattoo convention came to town. You can read more about her here.
Very Local New Orleans’ very own Jesse Lu Baum sat down to chat with Rhoden. It was a great conversation and makes it clear that if you get your tattoo with Rhoden or one of her fellow Black Pelican artists, you’re in good hands.
Call (504) 305-2499 if you’d like to ask some questions or make an appointment!
Eyecandy // Lower Garden District
You know it’s a good spot if it’s where the tattoo artists go to get their tattoos. Rhoden shouted out Eyecandy, where she went when she wanted a piece done on her back.
She called it one of the best shops in the city and said the artists there aren’t just really talented, but also extremely nice to work with.
You can book an appointment by contacting one of the artists via email, and you can check out their work on Instagram @eyecandytattoos.
Catahoula Tattoo // Bayou St. John
If you’re looking for something different, Catahoula Tattoo on Broad Street could be what you’re looking for.
“We’re not a tattoo shop, we’re a tattoo lounge,” said the business’ owner Dominic Sgro. “Customer service is what we’re all about. We’re the only shop in the city that offers live music, we accept credit cards and cryptocurrency, and we’ve always got free coffee!
They have tons of great tattoo options, but their logo is particularly popular. Sgro said more than 200 people all over the world have it.
You can book your appointment online here!
Hidden Dimension Studio // Arabi
Just outside the city, in Arabi, you can find Hidden Dimension Studio. They’re a private tattoo studio housed with an art gallery, and their speciality is tattoos catering to fandom based artwork.
And, that makes sense! The shop and gallery are owned and operated by Michael Bogle, a south Louisiana native heavily influenced by sci-fi based comics and animation.
Tattooagogo // Uptown
Celebrating its 12th anniversary in August, Uptown’s Tattooagogo is owned and staffed by tattooers who were born and raised in the New Orleans area.
“We have deep ties to the community and to the creative artists here in the city,” said tattooer and owner Donn Davis, “and I think as we strive for our goal to provide a space with a creative and friendly atmosphere.”
Davis said his shop’s artists are all experienced, ranging from 14 to 23 years in the field. They have a wall of designs from which customers can choose a design, but their real bread and butter is custom-designed tattoo art.
“That means we’re able to help our customers get their ideas down on paper, and then on their skin,” he said. “We just want to help people fulfill their vision.”
Whether that vision is a Japanese-style bodysuit or a small memento to remember this city or a loved one, Tattooagogo can help. Contact the shop here, or call at 504-899-8229.
Friday the 13th tattoo discounts are a thing
And here’s a little interesting news: lots of tattoo shops offer big deals any time it happens to be Friday the 13th. They typically post flash sheets of tattoo options for you to choose from which — depending on the shop — cost somewhere in the $13 to $20 range.
In case you didn’t know, that’s a seriously inexpensive tattoo by some seriously talented New Orleans artists.
Check in with your favorite shops on social media — or just give them a call — to see if they’re offering discounts.
In the past — Downtown Tattoos, Electric Lady Land, Sailor’s Cross, Mid City Voodoux Tattoos, Hell or High Water, and Pigment are just some of the local shops offering Friday the 13th deals.