The Early Origins of Temporary Tattoos: Hand-Painted Knees

With a shorter hemline and a blank kneecap, 1920s flappers began painting pictures on their legs.

Vintage & Historical
3 min
Kelsey Roslin
Kelsey Roslin
The Early Origins of Temporary Tattoos: Hand-Painted Knees
All stories
Vintage & Historical

A temporary tattoo of a whimsical whale from a Cracker Jack box would hardly turn a head in 1912, but a portrait painted by hand on a woman’s knee in the ’20s? Now that was scandalous.

Temporary Tattoo History

According to the Tattoo Archive , the origins of temporary tattoos have faded with time. Cracker Jack started making their now-famous “A Prize in Every Box” line in 1912, but it’s unclear when the company started including ink. Temporary tattoos didn’t really take off until the ’50s, and those early ones were made with food coloring and quickly washed off. The temporary tattoos on the plastic sheets that we’ve all come to know weren’t invented until the 3M Company created the technology in the 1980s. Could it be, then, that flappers were early trailblazers of temporary tats as we know them?

Don’t Forget About Henna

The answer is that it’s certainly possible that flappers influenced the temporary tattoo trend in the Western world! However, it’s important to note that the first- ever  temporary tattoos were likely henna or Mehdi art. This art form has a deep history in cultural and personal expression for people in Egypt, Pakistan, India, Africa, the Middle East, and more. But it didn’t become popular in the U.S. until the 1990s!

Traditional Henna
“Henna Tattoo” by Tela Chhe is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Dramatic Flapper Makeup

Women were getting bored with being Gibson Girls—those idealized versions of women with hair piled atop their heads and gowns reaching the floor. With the recent end of World War I, the roaring ’20s saw a boom in women’s desires to shake off their dainty and reserved personas and to celebrate life! The Jazz Age kicked off, and clubs were filled with a Gatsby-esque buzz. While the term flapper was originally an insult to a woman’s modesty, independent women embraced it. Flappers donned dramatic dark makeup, defined their lips, and chopped their long strands.

Rouging Your Knees

It’s hard to imagine a time when showing your ankles was saucy, but in the times of flappers, the hemline of skirts and dresses had only raised to calf-length. A flash of a knee was not a common sight, so dancers would put blush, or rouge, on their knees. When they lifted their hem with the pop of a kick, all eyes were on the pink-hued knees for a moment.

Painted Patellae

Women stopped wearing garters to hold up their pantyhose and instead began rolling them down below the knee. With a shorter hemline and a blank kneecap, flappers began painting pictures on their legs. Some used makeup, but many used actual paint and even enlisted artists to help. They would adorn their knees with flowers, portraits of their boyfriends, or detailed landscape scenes.

Most men and older women thought the trend was immature or too provocative. Interviewed for a Maryland paper in 1966 called “The News,” a man named James A. Rice said that cosmetic knees were “more childish than anything else.” Another man said, “I like to see just plain legs.” But rebellious teens joined in on the fun as well. Members of a Baltimore high school basketball team were almost expelled for painting portraits of their boyfriends on one knee and an image of a flapper on the other to bring them good luck during a game.

On-the-View Knees

Temporary tattoos were sold on sheets in the ’50s, and just after, the painted knee trend saw another resurgence in the ’60s. Famous makeup brands started selling kits to create the knee art yourself, like Faberge’s “Madcap Kneesies for on the View Knees.” This lesser-known knee painting trend of detailed tattoo-like imagery, fun florals, portraits, and even depictions of boxers may well have helped spark interest in temporary tattoos as we think of them today.

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