Why Were Tattoos Illegal in the US? (Historical Reasons)

Tattoos, once considered taboo and associated with criminality, have gradually become a popular form of self-expression in contemporary society.

However, it is intriguing to delve into the past and understand why tattoos were once illegal in the United States.

To truly comprehend the historical reasons behind their criminalization, we must explore the social, cultural, and legal factors that shaped the perception of tattoos in American society.

This article will take you on a journey through time, shedding light on the reasons behind the prohibition of tattoos and how their perception has transformed over the years.

Early Stigma and Religious Opposition

Tattoos have a long history and have been practiced by various cultures for centuries.

However, as Europeans settled in America, they brought with them negative perceptions of tattoos.

Early settlers, heavily influenced by conservative religious beliefs, considered tattoos a sign of paganism, heathenism, and barbarism.

The association of tattoos with indigenous peoples and non-Christian cultures further contributed to the stigma surrounding them.

Criminal Associations and Social Marginalization

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tattoos became closely linked to criminal activities.

Sailors, soldiers, and criminals adorned themselves with tattoos, which reinforced the perception that tattoos were symbols of deviance and lawlessness.

This association with criminality led to the marginalization of tattooed individuals in society, contributing to negative stereotypes.

Public Health Concerns

In the early 20th century, tattooing practices were often unregulated and performed in unsanitary conditions.

This lack of hygiene raised concerns about the spread of diseases such as syphilis and hepatitis. The public health risks associated with tattooing became a significant reason for the criminalization of the practice.

Many states began implementing laws to ban or heavily regulate tattooing to protect public health.

Progressive Reforms and Changing Attitudes

The mid-20th century marked a turning point for tattooing in the United States. Several factors contributed to changing attitudes towards tattoos and paved the way for their eventual decriminalization:

World War II and Cultural Exchange

During World War II, American soldiers stationed in various parts of the world encountered tattooed servicemen from different cultures.

This exposure to diverse tattoo traditions, particularly in Asia, sparked a fascination with tattoos and contributed to a shift in public perception.

Soldiers returning home brought their newfound appreciation for tattoos, helping to break down some of the negative associations.

Counter-Culture Movements

The 1960s and 1970s witnessed significant societal changes, including the rise of the counterculture movement.

Rejecting mainstream norms, countercultural icons embraced tattoos as symbols of rebellion and individuality.

This shift in perception, driven by influential figures such as musicians and actors, gradually began to dismantle the stigma surrounding tattoos.

Legal Reforms and State Regulations

In the 20th century, many states enacted laws to regulate or prohibit tattooing. These laws aimed to address public health concerns and maintain social order. However, over time, several states recognized the need to update their legislation and adapt to changing attitudes:

Repeal of Tattoo Bans

In the 1960s and 1970s, some states repealed their outright bans on tattooing.

However, regulations and restrictions remained in place to ensure health and safety standards were met.

Tattoo artists had to comply with licensing requirements, adhere to strict hygiene practices, and obtain permits to operate legally.

Modern-Day Tattoo Regulations

Today, tattooing is legal in all states, but regulations vary.

Most states have health and safety regulations in place, including sterilization requirements, age restrictions, and guidelines for tattoo parlors.

These regulations are aimed at protecting both the tattooed individual and the public from health risks and ensuring that tattooing is carried out in a safe and professional manner.

Changing Perceptions and Mainstream Acceptance

In recent decades, tattoos have experienced a significant shift in perception, moving from the fringes of society to the mainstream. Several factors have contributed to this transformation:

Popularity among Celebrities and Influencers

The visibility of tattoos in popular culture has played a crucial role in their acceptance. Celebrities and influencers proudly showcase their tattoos, helping to normalize and destigmatize the practice.

This increased visibility has made tattoos more socially acceptable and has influenced public opinion.

Artistic Expression and Individuality

Tattoos are increasingly seen as forms of artistic expression and a means of showcasing individuality. Many people now view tattoos as personal works of art that hold deep meaning or represent significant life experiences.

This shift in perception has led to a broader acceptance of tattoos as a legitimate and valid form of self-expression.

Tattooing as a Profession

The professionalization of the tattoo industry has contributed to changing perceptions. With the establishment of reputable tattoo studios and skilled artists, tattoos are now seen as legitimate career paths within the artistic community.

This shift has helped elevate the status of tattoos and the perception of those who choose to get them.


The criminalization of tattoos in the United States had deep historical roots and was influenced by various factors, including religious opposition, criminal associations, public health concerns, and social stigmatization.

However, evolving attitudes, cultural shifts, and legal reforms gradually led to the decriminalization and mainstream acceptance of tattoos.

Today, tattoos are widely recognized as a legitimate form of self-expression, embraced by people from all walks of life. While regulations exist to ensure health and safety standards, the focus has shifted towards supporting the artistic and individualistic nature of tattoos.

Understanding the historical reasons behind the prohibition of tattoos in the United States provides valuable insight into the transformation of societal attitudes towards this ancient form of body art.

As we continue to evolve, it is crucial to appreciate the significance of self-expression and cultural diversity, recognizing tattoos as a vibrant and legitimate part of our contemporary society.