The Cook Myth: Common Tattoo History Debunked

Tracking the origins of tattoo-history myths is a favorite pastime of mine. So many abound and continually get perpetuated.

A recent thread on my personal Facebook page (posted to public so you can read it here) had a number of excellent scholars weigh in on the oft-cited (but never properly documented) assertion that “the church” or “the pope” banned tattooing (sometimes discussed as all tattooing and sometimes discussed as “pagan” tattooing) in the 8th century with a date of 787 and Pope Hadrian commonly cited. I promise a more detailed post about this soon, but a follow up to that thread today reminded me that I have some ready-to-go unpublished material from my dissertation, Tattooed Transculturites: Western Expatriates Among Amerindian and Pacific Islander Societies, 1500-1900 (University of Chicago, 2012), about what I call the “Cook Myth”–that modern Western tattooing has its roots in Captain James Cook and company’s visits to Polynesia in the late 18th century.

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Sydney Parkinson’s classic illustration of a tattooed Maori from Cook’s first voyage

Polynesian roots for modern Western tattooing are patently untrue, and I spent some time tracing the origins of the myth in mid-20th-century secondary sources (mostly glossy popular publications that were then used as sketchy sources by certain late-20th-century academics).

So here you go…the Cook myth exposed, from my dissertation: Continue reading

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TED-Ed Does Tattoo History…Sigh

I recently came across the new TED-Ed “The history of tattoos” animation piece by Addison Anderson. Given that he is not someone I’ve ever come across as a tattoo history expert in my many years of studying the topic and networking with others who also do, I was very curious to see the end product, especially given that these videos are put out there as authoritative sources for teachers and high school students. Sadly, as usual with media pieces about the history of tattooing, it dismayed me.

I will readily admit that this video is better than most. It does not trot out the tired “tattoos are only for sailors/criminals/delinquents/gangs/etc.” trope nor does it perpetuate the Cook myth. However, it has some egregious gaffes and many small errors. If I were still teaching, I would have graded this as B-minus or C-plus level work at best.

The saddest part for me though is that this video could have been amazing with a round of content editing by an expert in the field! I really do crave slick, catchy video pieces like this one that might properly tell a concise history to a mainstream audience. One wonderful model for how to do these kind of things right (for those of you who understand French) can be found in this lovely piece on Berber tattooing. Continue reading

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The Melodramatic Nostalgia of Tattoo Reporting

On Saturday I presented a paper at the 2014 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association annual conference (on what ended up being quite a solid panel with my fellow tattoo-scholar friends Amelia Klem Osterud and Nick Schonberger and a sociologist Derek Roberts who we hadn’t met before but who is doing some interesting work).

It’s not the kind of paper that I would ever publish in a journal, but I thought I’d archive a slightly revised version of it here. I think I offer a useful critique of some of the recent editorial media pieces about tattooing as well as some helpful guidelines at the end for anyone authoring tattoo writing. I also didn’t get to present the entire paper because, well, perhaps I tend to ramble on a bit…so this is a way to get it all out there. In the process of doing research for this paper, I mined a significant amount of my personal history with tattooing, and that caused me to dredge up some amusing photos that documented my early years as a collector (and scholar).

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Me getting my first sleeve finished in 1993. The artist is my art-school friend Forrest Curl (working at River City Tattoo in Austin, TX…a long way from Providence, RI, where he had started tattooing me). A couple days later he started the other sleeve and finished it within a few months in my apartment in Chicago.

So here’s the paper: Continue reading

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Lyle Tuttle Antarctica 2014 Press Release

Official press release out for the Lyle Tuttle Antarctica 2014 project. After 2 1/2 weeks of seeing if anyone could refute the claim that he’s the first to tattoo on all 7 continents, I’m ready to call it! Feel free to distribute the pdf below to anyone you might know in the media. Thanks!

LTAProjectPressRelease021014 (<— link to a downloadable pdf, jpg below for those of you who just want to read it and not bother to download)

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A History-Assisting Historian? Helping Lyle Tuttle Tattoo on 7 Continents!

I just got back from a trip to Antarctica with the storied tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle. Slightly over a year ago at a convention, a little bird mentioned to me that Lyle wanted to visit Antarctica so he could fulfill a bucket-list dream of tattooing on all 7 continents. Traveling to the great Southern continent has always been a dream of mine too, so that night in the hotel bar, I cornered Lyle, related my personal fascination with Antarctica, and casually mentioned to him that if he really wanted to go, I could make it happen (I have a lot of adventure-travel and project management experience). And so, Lyle took me up on my offer to organize the trip and act as his assistant. I was honored and excited!

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Lyle’s impromptu tattoo station set up at the Russian Bellingshausen Station guesthouse common room.

The concept of going to Antarctica and tattooing on 7 continents was supposed to have been a secret, so I swore not to tell anyone and managed to keep this all under wraps until the day we got back. I created a code name for secrecy (the “LTA project”–for Lyle Tuttle Antarctica), and we were careful to not let anyone overhear us talking about it. I think maybe a dozen people knew what we were attempting (bad weather could have foiled the charter flight), and most of those didn’t know until just a few weeks before we left. Continue reading

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Book Review: Drawing with Great Needles

If you have an interest in tattoo history, you must add Drawing with Great Needles: Ancient Tattoo Traditions of North America to your book collection. I can’t emphasize this enough! In it, editors Aaron Deter-Wolf and Carol Diaz-Granados and their team of authors have put together an incredible collection of essays that introduce a wealth of new tattoo history material to the world. Most of the material focuses on Native American tattooing, but bits of Euro-American tattoo history creep in (especially with regard to the historical tattoo collectors I have studied in great depth–the transculturites who obtained tattoos while residing with Native American groups) and some scholarship about other non-Western societies offers comparison. Aaron’s essay about the archaeology of tattoo tools is especially welcome (and captivating) as there has been limited writing on this aspect of tattoo history outside of the machine era.

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The cover of Drawing with Great Needles featuring “the tattooed Osage chief Bacon Rind [all you bacon fanatics will love this] (1860-1932)” from the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

The current work in tattoo archaeology constitutes some of the most fascinating research in the history of tattooing. For too many years, the study of tattooing was nearly absent from archaeology, save for the investigation of a handful of preserved human remains, often in the form of mummies. But because of the social stigmas around tattooing that started in the late 19th century, right around the time that archaeology as a discipline was ramping up, archaeologists, when happening across artifacts, did not conjure socially unacceptable cultural practices like tattooing. But, as editors Deter-Wolf and Diaz-Granados mention in their introduction, tattooing has always “been as natural as any other cultural ritual.”

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Book review: Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants

I had promised book reviews when I started up Tattoo History Occasionally a few months ago. So…with the holiday giving season ramping up, I thought I’d start to crank some of these out (I have a large backlog). Those of you interested in tattoo history can add some interesting items to your wish lists or purchase these for like-minded recipients.

First up, an incredible audio book, Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants, tracing the life of the Moskowitz tattoo family out of New York. This 2-cd set provides a wealth of insight into old tattooing techniques and equipment, the culture of tattooing from the 1920s through the 1980s, and more general social context. It mostly revolves around Walter Moskowitz’s experiences, but also includes stories of his father, William (Willie), who learned from Charlie Wagner.

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A picture of Walter and his brother (and fellow tattoo artist) Stanley, 1950s

The project is impressively produced by Walter’s son Douglas Moscowitz who narrates throughout and seamlessly ties together all the audio clips. I particularly appreciated that this is not just a recording of a guy talking, but a professional oral history carefully edited with introductions to the clips, interjected context, different voices, and even background music here and there to keep the audio lively and provide ambiance. Hearing these stories as oral history brings them to life in a way that reading the words on pages would not. Besides tattoo history, a wealth of other material made the history nerd in me happy, such as anecdotes about life during WWII.

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Flash Art of Amund Dietzel

I had the pleasure of taking a quick day trip up to Milwaukee on a crisp and sunny fall day to see the special exhibit Tattoo: Flash Art of Amund Dietzel at the Milwaukee Art Museum before it closed. I wish I had had a chance to see it sooner to get the word out about what a worthwhile show it was to see. So if you have the chance between now and Sunday, October 13 (yes this Sunday), check it out!

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The exhibit is medium-sized with  over 30 framed flash sheets (some of them in the original frames), an early itinerant design book (and its loose leaves, some of which have been framed), a handful of acetate stencils, some pencil sketches, photos, business cards, other ephemera, and two particular highlights for me: a pink art-deco travel trunk and four of Dietzel’s non tattoo-art paintings (the latter of which, sadly, I could not get permission to reproduce here–they are wild! worth the trip just for them). Almost everything in the exhibit comes from the collection of Milwaukee tattoo artist Jon Reiter (of Solid State Tattoo), who has published many of the images in two excellent volumes, These Old Blue Arms: The Life and Work of Amund Dietzel, available here.

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Double-takes…

I always get a cheap thrill when I notice a tattoo motif referenced in two different historical academic publications. It makes me think of issues that range from shared scholarship to lazy research to plagiarism and that things are not that much different today as compared to years, even centuries ago.

My recent post on Tattoo History Daily of Havelock Ellis’s image-quoting of part of a Cesare Lombroso plate caused me to look deeply at Lombroso’s original plate. And I realized that the motto written across the central figure’s chest was one that I had posted many months back from Lombroso’s contemporary Alexandre Lacassagne. Here are the two images:

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(Lacassagne, Les tatouages étude anthropologique et médico-légale, 1881. Translation: “The past betrayed me, The present torments me, The future terrifies me”)

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(Lombroso, L’uomo delinquente, 5th edition 1897, originally published 1876. Translation: “The past torments me, the present ?s me, the future terrifies me.”)

The quote differs slightly from Lacassagne to Lombroso, and that makes me wonder if both researchers were observing the same person, but one of the researchers just transcribed the motto wrong (or wasn’t paying proper attention to his sketches when drafting the drawings after the fact). It’s patently clear that these criminologists’ research findings were so problematically skewed because they were working with such specific populations (incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized men), but if they were working with such a limited group that both the Italian Lombroso and the French Lacassagne had to seek out the same man, their conclusions become even more appalling. The entire lingering stigma that tattoos are deeply connected to criminality and deviance comes from the writings of these criminologists, who patently ignored or dismissed the vast practice of tattooing going on on non-criminal bodies at the time.

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Disney’s Tattooed “Princess”

This morning while multitasking parenting and a group project meeting at my house, my daughter asked if she could watch the Disney movie, Pocahontas. I wavered, not wanting to cave in to screen-as-babysitter so early in the day, but then I remembered that Pocahontas is tattooed. “Hey Eleanor,” I queried, “do you remember that Pocahontas has a tattoo?” Eleanor gave me one of those “duh, mom” looks and proceeded to tell me all about Pocahontas’s tattoo: “She has a tattoo on her arm, and it’s red, and it looks like fire.” (Proud mom moment…she’s just 4…a good interpretation of an abstract image!) Now Disney’s rendition of Pocahontas and her story is fraught with problems (the story of “Pocahontas” in general is fraught with problems), but one thing they did sort of get right was the tattoo (although her tattooing is not as extensive as what Pocahontas probably had).

Disney will probably get mad at me for using these images here, but here’s how they envisioned her tattooing:

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(A cover from one of the DVD issues.)

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(A still from the film)

After my meeting was over, I watched the last bit of the film with my daughter, and since we were already sitting in front of my computer, I offered to show her some historical images that the Disney animators used as reference for designing Pocahontas’s tattoo. Which got me thinking about sharing them with you. Continue reading

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Tattoo History Mystery

Images cut out of library books have always fascinated me. Beyond the basic “What *was* that image anyway?”, follow up questions like “So why did someone steal the image” lead to flights of fantasy creating stories about clandestine image snatchers armed with razor blades and nefarious intentions.

Imagine my excitement when two of my library interests collided: finding books with images cut out and finding obscure tattoo history books. When I came across Erhard Riecke’s Das Tatauierungwesen im heutigen Europa (Jena, 1925) at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library, I found a great mystery to solve. Since 2004, the book has sat in my personal library (yes as a grad student, then faculty, and now alumnus I can keep books out for ages with proper renewals), and every time I opened it to peruse its pages I would get near the end of the plates section and be intrigued by this:

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What was the missing image??? Although the section of plates was titled “Erotik”, the neighboring images were not particularly shocking or interesting…generic romantic images and some nudie girls. The previous plate had more of the same. But a look at the list of captions for that section revealed this gem with reference to the mystery: “Ornamental tatauierter Penis”. I hardly need to translate that for you…

Continue reading

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Abraham Baer, Der Verbrecher in anthropologischer Beziehung (Leipzig, 1893)

I’ve always been fascinated by the late 19th century criminology texts that try to decipher the mystery of why some people become criminals and others don’t…and then ascribe certain physical markers to be symbols of that criminality—visual cues then deployed as predictors of criminal behavior. Tattoos became one of these supposed indicators, and a wealth of books and journal articles devoted pages to trying to read deviant meaning into the images inscribed on incarcerated people (as well as the shapes and sizes of their heads, the character of their facial features, the proportions of their limbs, and all sorts of other ridiculous body measurements and surveillances based on the eugenistic pseudosciences of things like phrenology, craniometry, etc.).

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(The chest and arms of “C. L.”, a 23-year-old robber and drunk.)

There’s a major problem, of course. When one is only studying tattoos on incarcerated populations, and not at the same time studying tattoos on non-incarcerated populations, one’s perceptions get easily skewed toward tattoos being markers of deviance. Continue reading

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A new tattoo-history blog!

Dear Tattoo History Daily fans!

I’ve finally created a space where I can post occasional longer articles about tattoo history, mainly inspired by what I post on Tattoo History Daily but also venturing into topics such as exhibit, book, and film reviews (all tattoo-related of course) and perhaps even some occasional philosophizing or editorializing (I will spare you too much of that, however). The volume of posts will be entirely contingent upon how busy I am with other projects, but I have three queued up in my mind currently for the near future…a piece on the Baer criminology text with incredible pre-machine-era tattoo documentation, a proper review of the Jacoulet show at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, and a write-up of the incredible South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology where Ötzi the Iceman resides.

And to be blunt honest as is my wont, this is also a first attempt at trying to–in some small way–monetize the project as up until now it has been completely a labor of love. So click on links (especially to buy books or other products)–not all of them will necessary be monetization opportunities (most will probably just be sharing tattoo-history love or references) but some will. Also consider donating to the project via PayPal at tattoohistorian@gmail.com.

Thanks for all the incredible support since I launched Tattoo History Daily in October of 2012!

Stay tuned for my second Tattoo History Monthly piece coming up in Tattoo Culture Magazine. (And if you haven’t read the first one, you can still download it for free!)

And don’t forget you can follow Tattoo History Daily on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr!

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