Category Archives: Myth Debunking

Tattooed Transculturites–Read My PhD Tattoo-History Dissertation Online

My dear fans and followers, a gift from me to you for the new year: I’ve put my PhD dissertation, Tattooed Transculturites: Western Expatriates Among Amerindian and Pacific Islander Societies, 1500-1900, available online for viewing.

At this point, some of it is based on outdated research, but I still stand by 98% of this. I hope to get a popular-reader-friendly version of this published some day, but in the meantime, those of you who would like to geek out on academic jargon and some in-depth archival research can enjoy! Prepare for a looooooong read–it’s a 513 page document.

As you know, one of my big missions with tattoo history is to debunk myths that have arisen from assumptions, bad scholarship, and storytelling. I am always saddened when I continue to read about the Cook myth when, as this dissertation’s first half demonstrates, there is ample evidence for European tattooing (including being tattooed by non-European indigenous peoples) prior to the late 18th century. Since I wrote this, I’ve discovered several more important examples to add into the roster of tattooed transculturites, so a published version of this text will be even richer when that happens.

Feel free to reach out to me at tattoohistorian@gmail.com with any corrections or additional information that I might want to incorporate upon a revision for book publication.

And note the cover-page authorship is under my old married last name…ah History, a testament to how you preserve the good along with the bad!

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Spectacle Over Scholarship: Three Museum Tattoo Exhibits

Part 1: A Long Overdue Tattoo-Exhibit Critique

I so very much wanted to be able to write a positive review of the Field Museum of Chicago’s version of the tattoo exhibition that was put together by the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. I wish I could write something like: “As a scientific institution with a long history of supporting scholarship, the Field Museum diligently corrected the content mistakes of the original Tatoueurs, Tatoués show.” But instead I have to write: “The Field Museum’s new tattoo exhibition, while beautiful on the surface, is as fatally flawed as the previous two iterations of a show that should never have been allowed to travel to world-class institutions.”

I’ll frontload a quick tl;dr abstract of my criticisms:

  • There are numerous content errors throughout the exhibition, particularly in the way “Western” tattooing is contextualized.
  • The notion of “Tattooing in the West” as separated out from “global” or “non-Western” indigenous tattooing is a dated and unnecessarily dichotomous concept that smacks of colonialism and a hierarchical approach to studying culture.
  • Many of the images in the show—images presented as artifacts, not as supplementary material—are reproductions rather than originals, when originals would have been easy enough to borrow. That many of these reproductions were sourced from photography clearing houses seems scandalous from a museum-academic standpoint; this is the same material that anyone with internet access can find with a few keywords.
  • The show privileges design aesthetics over substance to provide “experience” rather than any substantive education.
  • Poor curatorial choices resulted in some artifacts that are only tangentially related to tattooing (with no good explanation as to why they were included) and other artifacts that pale in comparison to superior examples readily available to borrow from multiple public and/or private collections.
  • Women’s tattoo history is barely present in this exhibition; where it exists, it’s often treated voyeuristically. (Hat tip to my colleague Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray who noticed this when we were visiting the Toronto version of the show together.)
field-museum-qb-tattoo-167

I’m not quite sure how tattooing “made its way to Europe” on the skin of sailors and adventurers when it had been present in Europe since circa 3300 BCE–long before people sailed or adventured, just one of several errors in this introductory panel to the “West” section.

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Filed under Criminology, Ethnographic, Exhibit Reviews, Myth Debunking, Popular Culture, Uncategorized

Justin Trudeau Joins the Ranks of the World’s Tattooed Leaders

I’ll preface this post by saying I know absolutely nothing about Canada’s new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, other than the fact that last night my Facebook feed was flooded with images of his toned, semi-naked body and comments about how the new world leader was incredibly hot. Given his propensity to be photographed shirtless, I immediately spied his tattoo. Yes! Another world leader to add to my list of tattooed historical people.

JustinTrudeauGlamourTattoo

(I did not call this image beefcake, the original source did!) Continue reading

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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.

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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 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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