It’s no secret that American tattooing has had a rough past, the practice has been banned and outlawed from time to time, and all of those laws and bans have been ostensibly ignored by generations of tattoo artists. Due to the taboo nature of tattoos, especially early on, many tattoo artists led nomadic lives, travelling from city to city or with carnivals and circuses to ply their craft. Of course there were still notable shops in larger cities and those artists might move no further than down the street for a cheaper rent, but they were still always ready to move.
With so much equipment necessary to perform their art, tattooists had to devise a way to pack and carry their supplies quickly and efficiently. To this end many travelling artists created mobile studio setups in trunks and cases. The most popular style of trunk used by tattooists was the wardrobe which became common in the early 1900’s. These trunks had solid wood bases covered with various materials; early wardrobe manufacturer’s using leather and hide similar to the furniture they produced and eventually using anything from paper to canvas. As tattoo artists began converting these trunks, removing the storage spaces and amenities designed for apparel and installing all the necessary equipment for tattooing, lights, pigments, switchboards, etc.
As the practice of creating a mobile tattoo studio grew naturally some industrious folks began offering premade setups known as ‘outfits’. The most popular supplier of Tattoo Outfits was Milton Zeis, who offered the widest variety of styles for all levels of expertise. Zeis’ outfits ranged from a small carrying case for a machine and some pigment which could fit in your pocket, to a full wardrobe with a whole tattoo studio inside, including eight machines, full range of pigments, stencil equipment, and even an internal power supply; some outfit producers like Owen Jensen even included battery packs within their kits for complete portability.
The use of trunks within the tattooing community carried on for many years after the heyday of sideshow tattooing and the travelling circus and carnival. The idea of the travelling tattoo studio was maintained through the 1970’s and 80’s with the advent of tattoo conventions. Greg Irons created one from a Samsonite briefcase and in the 1980’s Randy Adams used a remodeled Sousaphone case. Now several people offer mobile set-ups built around metal cases and toolboxes.