Category Archives: Travel

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At this point, some of it is based on outdated research, but I still stand by 98% of this.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 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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Filed under Ethnographic, Myth Debunking, Research, Sailors/Maritime, Travel, 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.)


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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Tattooing in the Travels of Marco Polo

I was recently at one of my favorite annual book fairs in Chicago, the Newberry Library’s sale of donated books to support their collections, hunting for volumes I might want to add to the tattoo library. One of the books I stumbled upon was a nice-looking hardcover coffee-table-sized translation of the Travels of Marco Polo. I had read many times in passing that Polo wrote about tattoos he encountered in Asia, but never had the opportunity to read through a copy to find all of the references. Here was the perfect opportunity to cross that item off the research to-do list.

Polo was born in 1254 and ventured to the Far East to start his quarter-century journey when he was 17. His travel narrative has enjoyed continued popularity ever since its publication at the end of the 13th century. I’m not sure if this particular edition–a 1982 version of Ronald Latham’s 1958 translation–is considered a good translation (something for further research), but Latham was a serious Polo scholar who advanced the compelling hypothesis that Polo had the book ghostwritten in 1298-99 by a well-known romantic writer, Rustichello of Pisa, so presumably it’s reputable. Some people have even hypothesized that Polo never made it to China (despite the considerable level of detail in some of his descriptions that seemingly must have derived from first-hand observation); it’s a topic of renewed recent debate. I do know that, as with many medieval texts, Polo’s narrative survives in different forms (apparently there are approximately 150 manuscript versions). I’m not sure how much the tattoo descriptions vary from edition to edition.

Since little has been written about these Polo tattoo mentions, I thought, at the very least, I could transcribe them here with some annotations as to what jumps out as interesting to me and what added evidence I might quickly find. Polo mentions tattooing in detail three times, and I’m quoting the passages here unabridged with plenty of the surrounding text to give context. 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!


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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