Barbering and Tattoos?

If you, dear reader, were to take a quick look through a few barbers Instagram pages (other social media sites are available) you may notice that a lot of them have a tattoo or two, probably quite a few more. Yet somehow this adult male in his mid twenties (dear writer) has never really thought beyond “that looks pretty cool”, when on the surface of it, there is no real reason for the two to be linked… is there?

Before we voyage (hint hint) into the great unknown, maybe the quickest of recaps is required: barbering – very old, tattooing – old but not as old. Hope that clears things up…

'Barber the Barber' in Penzance

Seriously though, as you may know from posts such as History of the Barber Pole, barbering is an ancient profession, the first implements that we are pretty certain are barber tools is a barber razor that is over 20,000 years old! And since then the base profession of cutting men’s hair hasn’t changed, hair will continue to grow and laser epilation was a bit less precise in ye olden times, and sadly the Dark Stag Premium Straight Razor just wasn’t available. Of course such 

minor things as becoming surgeons, bloodletting and leeching, fire cupping, performing enemas, and a toe curling idea of pre-anaesthesia tooth extraction became part and parcel of the role really. But what else would you expect of your local barber?

19,900 years after it’s rather grim conception, and a colossal business boom with the invention of mass production, the business took a hit. Barbering fell out of popularity. Possibly thanks to the invention of the safety razor in 1880 (a.d. now, obviously), but even more likely was the invention and business model created by King Camp Gillette, keep the hissing to a minimum please. As you may be familiar with his work, all I need to say is he invented the idea of disposable razors and the ‘razor and blades business model’, both of which have been made wildly popular, and which led to the decrease in popularity of barbers and their profession. The art had a pretty grim outlook with unisex hairdressers becoming trendy. Fortunately, with indie culture growing more fashionable, and men’s grooming with it, the barbershop is being restored to its pre-Gillette glory. And we here at Dark Stag are thankful for it! Make sure to check out the new Dark Stag Shaving Set with the button below!

Older Maori man tattooed, feathers in hair

‘Bad hair, don’t care’

So with that covered, what about the other half of this article, tattoos?

Tattoos also have a rich and varied history, with pretty much every culture having a punky rebel stage at some point. The UK has been lucky enough to have 3, the woad phase (ancient Britons), the naval exploration (read: colonialism) phase, and the modern resurgence. I won’t go over the ancient stuff, it’s kind of irrelevant to modern barbering, so let’s jump right in to the rise in popularity in the 19th century.

The British navy has quite the reputation for landing in foreign countries, usually conquering and claiming it for itself, leading to that well known phrase: ‘The sun never sets on the British empire’. Fortunately for modern day tattooists, this colonial expansion led to the sailors being exposed to a lot of different cultures from around the world, and a lot of these cultures (looking at you New Zealand, Japan and Samoa) had a deeply ingrained tattoo culture. Which the sailors quite fancied for themselves.

This was the birth of the stereotype and image of the grizzled tattooed sailor, and these men brought the images back home where they gained popularity in a major way, even kings and princes got inked (Edward VII and his sons). So you can see exactly how this led to a hugely popular tattoo culture within the UK, and other nations of course. After the world wars, and a number of other events, tattoos had a stigma attached to them, a cumulative effect rather than one defining event, which suppressed them and made them into a subculture of their own. But the fashionable force could not be contained, and the tattoo is now once again in the spotlight.

Tattooed man from Captain cooks three voyages around the world

Suns out guns out

Now back to the meat of this: we’ve heard of mice and men, but what of barbers and tattoos? What’s the link?

One pretty simple explanation could be that both require a clean, sterile environment, electrical tools that need to be handled with precision, and a rather cool old-school atmosphere that few other places can compete with. Dark Stag products are all designed with this classic aesthetic in mind, so they look right at home in your barber shop! Whilst this does logically explain the modern aspects, it really doesn’t cover the historical links.

On the surface it appears to be that there is no causal link, that the pair have always been linked, pre-Gillette anyway. One answer that jumped out to me was that, historically, ships would have a barber on board, and as we know, in the olden times these guys would have to switch between straight razor and scalpel and just pray they didn’t get the order muddled up. And we also know that these ships were the first modern Europeans to encounter the cultures that were heavily tattooed.

US Sailors getting tattooed on board a ship

A homoerotic tattooing session, what more can you ask of the navy?

Some would have been inked in these foreign lands, but I am willing to bet that some sailors would have liked the idea of getting them after seeing these examples, and who else is better to perform this art than the ships resident barber surgeon? From there the barbers leave the ships, set up a business and well there you have it, the barber-tattoo wombo combo that seems so familiar to us.

There is one final interpretation however, and it really speaks to me. The subculture stems back to barber shop culture and its roots, as well as the seemingly permanent stigma regarding tattooed people. It’s easy to understand how comfortable a tatted professional or artist would feel working in an environment that supports how they like to express themselves, particularly one that is seen as so ‘alternative’. A mutual respect for each other on this basis would really encourage working together. And barber shops are the place to be to provide it. Men travel to barber shops and tattoo parlours to forge and expand their identities, and the venues have come to represent a distinct set of values that are… well, valued by their customers and the people working there. Going to a barber shop is no longer just about getting your hair cut, it’s also about finding a place where you can relax and be amongst like-minded people without feeling judged. And the same applies to tattoo shops, so it’s no wonder the two are so closely linked!

Master Sgt. Steven Covington, with 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, cuts a Marine's hair aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) at sea, March 8, 2016. The Marines and sailors of the 31st MEU are currently deployed aboard the Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group as part of their spring deployment to the Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Ismael Pena/Released)

And the ships barber tradition lives on!

So there you have it! I’ve supplied the ideas and knowledge, it’s up to you to decide which fits in with your worldview. The question is, which answer do you choose?

Until next time

Dark Stag Team

All images displayed in this article are used from wikimedia commons.

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