Bold that Holds is our series where we examine the meaning behind traditional tattoo motifs. Be sure to check out some of our other installments, such as this piece about reapers and Death’s place in the realm of body art.
Did you know that kewpie dolls first appeared onto the art scene in a political cartoon? That’s right, those adorable cherub dolls that are commonly featured in traditional tattoo flash got their start in a magazine aimed at married homemakers.
In 1909, kewpie dolls were created by American cartoonist Rose O’Neill and were first published by Ladies’ Home Journal as a way of promoting the Women’s Suffrage Movement. O’Neill claims that the idea for the small, cherub-like characters came to her in a dream and they were inspired by the Roman God of Love, Cupid. By the 1920s, kewpie dolls were made into porcelain figurines and tattoo artists began incorporating O’Neill’s designs into their flash art. One of the most famous tattooers that incorporated kewpies into their tattoos was Mike “Rollo” Malone, who purchased Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins’ Hotel Street shop in 1973 after his death. Malone revived O’Neill’s famous cartoons and inspired countless other artists to recreate the kewpie in tattoos.
Today, kewpies continue to be a popular subject of American traditional tattooing, albeit a bit more stylized then when they first began appearing on flash sheets. Artists like Stacey Martin Smith are creating kewpies that take on the identity of the client or the artist, whether it be a Rastafarian kewpie, a punk rock kewpie, or a kewpie inspired by drag icon Divine. However, despite the modifications that are made to the kewpie, one is still able to distinguish the figure based on the famously plump silhouette, round eyes, rosy cheeks, and whimsical tuft of hair on the top of the head. Through tattooing, the kewpie has been revived for modern audiences and collectors of all ages continually adorn their bodies with the cheerful cherubs.
If you want to get an adorable tattoo that also supports the suffrage movement, go ahead and grab a kewpie doll from one of these amazing artists! Check 'em out on their Instagrams if you want to see more tattoos that will make you coo.