A Dozen Questions to Ask When Writing About Tattoo History and Culture

Attention all who write or might want to write about tattoo history and/or culture!

(This includes journalists, bloggers, academics, and more…)

Here’s a handy list of a dozen questions to ask yourself both before and after composing your piece of writing–relevant to everything from a short social media post to a dissertation or book.

(See longer explanation of the origins of this list below.)

1. Do you understand the difference between folklore and historical fact? Are you conflating folklore with historical fact?

2. Are you looking at history through a contemporary lens? Is this producing an anachronistic reading of history?

3. Are you looking at another culture through your own culture’s lens? Is this producing a biased reading of that culture?

4. Have you triple-checked your dates? If there are date inconsistencies, how did you resolve them?

5. Are the foundations of your research in primary sources (historical documents, field research, etc.)? Are you pigeonholing or cherry picking primary sources to fit a thesis that was externally developed?

6. Are you interested in theory (gender, performance, biography, identity, criminology, etc.) BEFORE tattooing? If so, are you cherry picking your primary sources to make the theoretical case you set out to, rather than letting the evidence guide the theory? If you’re relying on secondary sources, have they done the same?

7. Do you understand that journalistic sources, even (or perhaps, especially) then-contemporary ones, must always be treated skeptically unless backed up by other lines of evidence?

8. What are the dates on your secondary sources? If they are not recent, do you have a good reason for using an older source?

9. What are the backgrounds of the scholars who wrote the secondary sources you are using? How long have they been researching tattooing? Do they have any tattoos? What are their credentials? (None of these are guarantees of good scholarship, but important questions to ask.)

10. Do you know that the major sources of western tattoo history: Burchett’s “memoirs” and Parry, upon which most of the others confound, but also Ebensten, Hambly, Steward, and Scutt & Gotch, are all fatally flawed in various major and minor ways? Do you know that even some of the otherwise excellent edited anthologies of the first wave of new tattoo scholarship (e.g. Caplan, Thomas et al.) have sections that have subsequently been proven untrue?

11. Did the historic figure you’re claiming had a tattoo actually have one? Was it confirmed in a first hand source such as a diary, photograph, medical record, or military record? (Tattooers claiming certain people as clients doesn’t count.)

12. Are you reiterating or perpetuating any broad popular assumptions that might be myth? Two classic myth examples are that modern Western tattooing derived from Cook’s voyages to Polynesia and that Western tattooing was previously only the purview of sailors, bikers, criminals, gangs, the lower class, etc. etc.

The story behind this list:

This list was inspired by a dreadfully bad interview article in Vice (linked here via donotlink). You can view a roundup of the critique of this piece on the Tattoo History Daily Facebook thread here. I’m still weighing writing up a proper point-by-point analysis of all the errors in it, much as I did with the flawed TED-Ed piece, but it is so irredeemable I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.

It resulted from a collaborative effort from a group of dedicated tattoo scholars. I came up with 8 of them (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, and 12) and posted them on this Facebook thread for some crowd-sourced feedback. I have to particularly thank Amelia Klem Osterud for the foundations of question 1, which came out of a conversation she initiated last year. Matt Lodder offered questions 6, 7, and 11 (some of which I edited a tiny bit) and the first half of point 10 (I added the more recent texts).

Those of us who are serious scholars of tattoo history and culture are *constantly* trying to correct the record and combat the damage that popular literature and media regularly wreak on our discipline. Myth-perpetuation, reliance on outdated and incorrect sources, and just plain made up shit dominate the discussion of tattoo history and culture, even in reputable places. So please, if you want to write about or publish about tattoo history and/or culture, take the above questions to heart and DO NOT PUT YOUR MATERIAL OUT THERE if you can’t satisfactorily answer the above questions or if you simply don’t understand them. (Yes I am yelling; deal with it.) No blog posts, no lectures, no interviews for media, no publications. It would be irresponsible and unethical to do so. If you can’t answer the above questions but would still really like to do something about tattooing, consider reaching out to one of us for a collaboration (and no, we don’t work for free, sorry–I can’t speak for all other tattoo scholars, but my fees for text review, research, original writing, etc. are really reasonable).

A warning, though: in this day and age of corporatized higher education in which university students are often not properly supported and taught to interrogate material the way some of the people who contributed to this had been, just having a degree in no way makes anyone an expert. If you are interested in who might be a good person to hire for your tattoo history/culture project, ask me. I am happy to make referrals to the right person as long as you are not seeking to mine their expertise in a predatory way.

I’d also like to add that I and my fellow scholars commend the journalists, producers, and others who have listened to us when we attempt to correct the record and who alter their preconceived story lines accordingly. Thank you for having content integrity and respecting the years of research that have informed the scholars you sought out to consult because of their credentials.

Feel free to post additional questions to help guide proper inquiry in the comments below.

And because it’s boring to have a post without an image, here you go: here’s hoping bad tattoo scholarship can just DIE! (From Baer.)




Filed under Myth Debunking, Popular Culture

2 responses to “A Dozen Questions to Ask When Writing About Tattoo History and Culture

  1. Pingback: Debunking Tattooed Lady Myths | Skin and Soul

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