Tattoos are less permanent than they used to be. Advances in laser technology, lightening ointments, and cover-ups have allowed people who made bad decisions about tattoos to remove them or change them. The philosopher in me goes back and forth about whether this shift in what was once considered to be a vital characteristic of the tattoo–it’s lasting power–is a positive development in the history of tattooing. I got my early tattoos deeply believing they would be there forever. Although some of them I would not choose today, I am at peace with all of them, even those that have not aged well or that no longer reflect my personality. Except for one. One of my tattoos I have come to hate. I no longer want it on my body. It currently looks like this:
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I’ve been more than a bit absent from actively publishing tattoo-history related research and news on both this website and its companion social media accounts. If you’re curious as to why, I decided to go back to school for a *very intensive* program in data science (like I-can-barely-find-time-to-shower intensive, if that’s any indication of the rigor of this program I’m in). But as with most school-based research projects over the years, I’m focusing my capstone project on something tattoo-related.
The concept of digital humanities has long been a favorite of mine to read about and weigh possibilities, but I didn’t have the tech skills in coding and modeling to do that kind of work. Well…now I do! I’ll offer one small glimpse at what I have on tap for the future. Here’s a quick screencap from some code I wrote that tallies the top word counts of title words in all tattoo books (and marginally tattoo-related books) published between 1850 and today. Looking forward to sharing some really interesting, if visually unexciting, research soon!
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At this point, some of it is based on outdated research, but I still stand by 98% of this.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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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!
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.)
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.”
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
On Saturday I presented a paper at the 2014 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association annual conference (on what ended up being quite a solid panel with my fellow tattoo-scholar friends Amelia Klem Osterud and Nick Schonberger and a sociologist Derek Roberts who we hadn’t met before but who is doing some interesting work).
It’s not the kind of paper that I would ever publish in a journal, but I thought I’d archive a slightly revised version of it here. I think I offer a useful critique of some of the recent editorial media pieces about tattooing as well as some helpful guidelines at the end for anyone authoring tattoo writing. I also didn’t get to present the entire paper because, well, perhaps I tend to ramble on a bit…so this is a way to get it all out there. In the process of doing research for this paper, I mined a significant amount of my personal history with tattooing, and that caused me to dredge up some amusing photos that documented my early years as a collector (and scholar).
Me getting my first sleeve finished in 1993. The artist is my art-school friend Forrest Curl (working at River City Tattoo in Austin, TX…a long way from Providence, RI, where he had started tattooing me). A couple days later he started the other sleeve and finished it within a few months in my apartment in Chicago.
So here’s the paper: Continue reading
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)
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
If you have an interest in tattoo history, you must add Drawing with Great Needles: Ancient Tattoo Traditions of North America to your book collection. I can’t emphasize this enough! In it, editors Aaron Deter-Wolf and Carol Diaz-Granados and their team of authors have put together an incredible collection of essays that introduce a wealth of new tattoo history material to the world. Most of the material focuses on Native American tattooing, but bits of Euro-American tattoo history creep in (especially with regard to the historical tattoo collectors I have studied in great depth–the transculturites who obtained tattoos while residing with Native American groups) and some scholarship about other non-Western societies offers comparison. Aaron’s essay about the archaeology of tattoo tools is especially welcome (and captivating) as there has been limited writing on this aspect of tattoo history outside of the machine era.
The cover of Drawing with Great Needles featuring “the tattooed Osage chief Bacon Rind [all you bacon fanatics will love this] (1860-1932)” from the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
The current work in tattoo archaeology constitutes some of the most fascinating research in the history of tattooing. For too many years, the study of tattooing was nearly absent from archaeology, save for the investigation of a handful of preserved human remains, often in the form of mummies. But because of the social stigmas around tattooing that started in the late 19th century, right around the time that archaeology as a discipline was ramping up, archaeologists, when happening across artifacts, did not conjure socially unacceptable cultural practices like tattooing. But, as editors Deter-Wolf and Diaz-Granados mention in their introduction, tattooing has always “been as natural as any other cultural ritual.”
I had the pleasure of taking a quick day trip up to Milwaukee on a crisp and sunny fall day to see the special exhibit Tattoo: Flash Art of Amund Dietzel at the Milwaukee Art Museum before it closed. I wish I had had a chance to see it sooner to get the word out about what a worthwhile show it was to see. So if you have the chance between now and Sunday, October 13 (yes this Sunday), check it out!
The exhibit is medium-sized with over 30 framed flash sheets (some of them in the original frames), an early itinerant design book (and its loose leaves, some of which have been framed), a handful of acetate stencils, some pencil sketches, photos, business cards, other ephemera, and two particular highlights for me: a pink art-deco travel trunk and four of Dietzel’s non tattoo-art paintings (the latter of which, sadly, I could not get permission to reproduce here–they are wild! worth the trip just for them). Almost everything in the exhibit comes from the collection of Milwaukee tattoo artist Jon Reiter (of Solid State Tattoo), who has published many of the images in two excellent volumes, These Old Blue Arms: The Life and Work of Amund Dietzel, available here.
I always get a cheap thrill when I notice a tattoo motif referenced in two different historical academic publications. It makes me think of issues that range from shared scholarship to lazy research to plagiarism and that things are not that much different today as compared to years, even centuries ago.
My recent post on Tattoo History Daily of Havelock Ellis’s image-quoting of part of a Cesare Lombroso plate caused me to look deeply at Lombroso’s original plate. And I realized that the motto written across the central figure’s chest was one that I had posted many months back from Lombroso’s contemporary Alexandre Lacassagne. Here are the two images:
(Lacassagne, Les tatouages étude anthropologique et médico-légale, 1881. Translation: “The past betrayed me, The present torments me, The future terrifies me”)
(Lombroso, L’uomo delinquente, 5th edition 1897, originally published 1876. Translation: “The past torments me, the present ?s me, the future terrifies me.”)
The quote differs slightly from Lacassagne to Lombroso, and that makes me wonder if both researchers were observing the same person, but one of the researchers just transcribed the motto wrong (or wasn’t paying proper attention to his sketches when drafting the drawings after the fact). It’s patently clear that these criminologists’ research findings were so problematically skewed because they were working with such specific populations (incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized men), but if they were working with such a limited group that both the Italian Lombroso and the French Lacassagne had to seek out the same man, their conclusions become even more appalling. The entire lingering stigma that tattoos are deeply connected to criminality and deviance comes from the writings of these criminologists, who patently ignored or dismissed the vast practice of tattooing going on on non-criminal bodies at the time.
I’ve always been fascinated by the late 19th century criminology texts that try to decipher the mystery of why some people become criminals and others don’t…and then ascribe certain physical markers to be symbols of that criminality—visual cues then deployed as predictors of criminal behavior. Tattoos became one of these supposed indicators, and a wealth of books and journal articles devoted pages to trying to read deviant meaning into the images inscribed on incarcerated people (as well as the shapes and sizes of their heads, the character of their facial features, the proportions of their limbs, and all sorts of other ridiculous body measurements and surveillances based on the eugenistic pseudosciences of things like phrenology, craniometry, etc.).
(The chest and arms of “C. L.”, a 23-year-old robber and drunk.)
There’s a major problem, of course. When one is only studying tattoos on incarcerated populations, and not at the same time studying tattoos on non-incarcerated populations, one’s perceptions get easily skewed toward tattoos being markers of deviance. Continue reading