Category Archives: Popular Culture

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.)
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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

Custom Tattoo Work—Historical Improvisation During William Lithgow’s 1612 Pilgrimage

Travel narratives about Holy-Land pilgrimage tattoos are one of my go-to evidence banks for demonstrating the significant presence and visibility of tattooing in the early modern period (defined as approximately 1450-1850). William Lithgow’s travel narrative (in its various editions) represents probably the most often-cited example of these texts. I’ve lectured many times about the “surprising” nature of what Lithgow writes about tattooing (surprising…only if one believes in the Cook myth), but not published these thoughts. A recent request from a fellow body-art scholar to recap part of a recent talk I gave about Lithgow and other early-modern tattoo wearers made me realize I should write the Lithgow material down for broader dissemination. In doing so, and in relooking at the texts, I had some new epiphanies. So here you go, an updated analysis of the tattoos of 17th-century, Holy-Land pilgrim, William Lithgow:

In 1612, the Scottish traveler and author William Lithgow, apparently along with several companions, obtained tattoos in Jerusalem. This was not a novel idea: pilgrims before him and many more after him had received similar marks of piety. Had Lithgow and others not written about these tattoos, we might not know about them. Standards of dress and the conventions of portrait painting during the early modern period dictated that little skin be shown in formal representations, so images like Lithgow’s portrait in the frontispiece of the volume, costumed in exotic finery from his travels, do not show him as tattooed. (Later, a few travelers, such as German diplomat Heinrich Wilhelm Ludolf, did proudly roll up their sleeves to display their tattoos for visual posterity.)

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The frontispiece to the 1632 edition of Lithgow’s narrative

 

In the first version of Lithgow’s narrative about his travels published in 1614, he writes:

“In the last night of my staying at Jerusalem, which was at the holy grave, I remembring that bounden duty, & loving zeale, which I owe unto my native Prince; whom I in all humility (next and immediate to Christ Jesus) acknowledge to be the supreme head, and Governour of the true Christian and Catholicke Church; by the remembrance of this obligation I say, I caused one Elias Bethleete, a Christian inhabitour of Bethleem, to ingrave on the flesh of my right arme, The never-conquered Crowne of Scotland, and the now inconquerable Crowne of England, joyned also to it, with this inscription, painefully carved in letters, within the circle of the Crowne, Vivat Jacobus Rex.”

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Filed under Popular Culture, Religion, Travel, 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.

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(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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Tattoo Business Historical Survey and Baseline

Four recent tattoo projects with which I have been involved acutely highlighted the need for better analytical data to understand how tattooing has changed over time. In all of them, I was tasked with trying to determine how much the tattoo world has expanded since the 1960s. There are no good, specific answers!

I feel safe in saying that more people are getting tattooed today than in 1960 and more people are getting bigger tattoos (but by what percentage change?). New designs have clearly been introduced to tattooing and have become canonical (but exactly when did these start being rendered and by who?). I also feel safe in saying that the percentage of tattoo shops per capita has increased considerably (but by how much??? who knows?). I can also say without hesitation that tattooing has become codified as an industry and as part of this shift a standard protocol for health and sanitation practices has become widespread (but when exactly did this become standard practice by a majority of shops?).

So, I’ve put together the first of what hopefully will be a series of investigations that will yield some foundational data upon which future research can expand. Behold the “Tattoo Business Historical Survey and Baseline”!

Since I am almost as much of a numbers geek as I am an archives geek (here’s one of my non-tattoo numbers projects), I thought to launch this project to collect hard data on the changes in the tattoo business, so that not only now, but centuries from now, tattoo historians such as myself might be able to find proper quantitative and qualitative data to mine to understand trends and changes over time.

The survey is designed to arrive at information about trends and changes in the business of tattooing over the past 50-or-so years and is intended for tattoo artists to answer. Please help spread the word and share widely! Tattoo artists are generally very busy people so any assistance in getting a significant number of artists to participate would be much appreciated.

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Also, as a long-time member of the tattoo community (I got my first tattoo in 1990) and as someone who once wanted to be a tattoo artist herself (but who realized, smartly, that you kind of really need to know how to draw properly to tattoo), I very much understand that tattoo artists are often quite reluctant to talk about their industry. So tattooers, I would be honored if you would set aside a small amount of time to help begin to create a better archive of information about tattooing for posterity. Many of the questions are optional, and, of those, you may skip any that make you uncomfortable.

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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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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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