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:


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…

Someday, I said to myself, I’ll track down another copy of the book to see what compelled someone to excise just this single image from the book. I thought to myself that it must be a fabulously graphic image.

The psychology behind stealing an image of an ornamentally tattooed penis from an obscure university library book in German about tattooing drove so many possible scenarios. In addition, I found myself drawn to try to figure out what tool might have been used to liberate the photograph. The rough, uneven edges of the excision hinted at some rudimentary tool, used with passion, in haste. Fingers tearing paper? A key? What might be at hand while browsing the stacks? Was the thief in a hurry because he or she was in fear of being discovered feeding his or her erotica fetish?


Looking at the page behind the missing image, one can see lines pressed into the paper. My conclusion? The thief used some sort of blunt tool to crease the paper around the image (leaving the impressions on the page behind as well), then bent and tore the page to get the image out, kind of like when you lack scissors to cut paper and fold the piece so you can tear it along the edge of a desk. Had the thief been at home with the book, he or she could have surgically removed the prize resulting in precise edges. To me, this clearly indicates a crime of circumstance rooted in intense desire for this image!

Recently, after posting a number of pictures from this book on Tattoo History Daily, I wondered if I might purchase it. Usually old books like these are quite expensive and out of my budget, but sometimes used book sellers don’t know what they have. So I peeked at my favorite AbeBooks, and lo and behold there was a copy somewhere in Germany for a very reasonable price (the shipping to the US was more than the book). So I bought it.

But I had to wait…I opted for the much cheaper ground shipping and 4 weeks of particularly acute longing to have this mystery solved ensued.

I was sitting at my desk in my home office one day when the doorbell rang. Package from Germany! I excitedly dropped what I was doing and carefully opened the wrappers surrounding the book. I immediately thumbed to the relevant place and found this:


What a fascinating image! Heavily tattooed legs (but not the top of the thighs), and, of course, the ornamentally tattooed penis. Here’s a detail:


Best I can tell, the ornamental designs in question are some sort of foliage and maybe flowers. Judging by his leg tattoos, the collector certainly loved the ladies!

After solving the mystery of what the image looks like, I’m even more intrigued by who the thief might have been. In this digital age, I might be able to actually track down the loan history on the book and see if that yielded any insight. But given the yellowed edges around the excision marks, this plate clearly had been cut out many years ago. A dead end…

Was the thief male or female? Did they steal the image just for general erotic titillation or for something darker? Did they keep the image to him or herself or share it with others? Did he or she frame it and put it on display? Keep it under a pillow and masturbate to it? Did the thief steal it because he wanted a similarly ornamental penis? Or because he or she wanted a partner to get such a tattoo? So many questions…so few answers.

Even more interesting: where is the stolen image today?

What do you think? Feel free to post your theories and/or fabrications as to who the image thief might be and why he/she stole this image.


Filed under Erotica

4 responses to “Tattoo History Mystery

  1. awesome,hope you dont mind if I share this

  2. Pingback: The Character of the Tattoo in Modern Europe | Division Leap

Leave a Reply to Dragon Tattoo Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s