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:
Tag Archives: history of tattoos
For those of you interested in how my new adventures in data science are intersecting with my old adventures in tattoo history, you can visit my Github to read a long technical report on a work in progress. I’ve created a prototype popularity calculator that works by using historical book data from OCLC’s Worldcat (books with a keyword stem of tattoo* published between 1850 and today). When it is up and running in its final form, users will be able to try out different book titles to see which might lead to bigger archival holdings in libraries. Here’s a taste of some of the predictions that the current model outputs.
I think where you really see the model start to shine is at the bottom of the test sample. Given that the training data for the model is holdings in libraries, many of which are academic libraries, you can see that for four different title variations for a book about Maori tattooing, a slightly more academic title has the greatest popularity. More tests are needed to see if this holds true for all books, or if the model can predict that a sub-genre like Maori tattoos might have more academic interest than some other type of tattoo topic. And note, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was actually not part of the data set for training because it’s extreme popularity made it a serious outlier. So it was interesting to see where that might have ranked had it not experienced viral popularity.
I’m definitely open to help getting it up and running on this site as well as the Center for Tattoo History and Culture. So if you are a programmer/developer type and want to help, feel free to reach out (or just submit code to the Github). Looking forward to more adventures in digital humanities work in the future!
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
In thinking of what might be a good image for Tattoo History Daily’s second anniversary, I scanned my image database to find something celebratory. This image of two people clinking glasses jumped out at me, as it seemed that one of them was a female military worker and the manuscript is from the very early part of the 20th century.
Reading the caption, I discovered that this image shows a French Zouave (a light infantryman, usually stationed in North Africa) with a cantinière. Googling a bit, I discovered the fascinating history of the cantinières–they were women whose official duty was to accompany troops in combat and sell them food and drink. You can see the tap on her small, portable keg of what I am assuming is wine, although it could also be beer (I am presuming it is something with alcohol content since water was often a health risk in times past).
The rest of the caption noted that this was a common French tattoo, and if my very quick translation holds up, it was executed by a long-standing legionnaire at one of his friend’s houses who had not been a soldier. So it’s quite interesting from a tattoo-history standpoint on a variety of levels. For one, it’s an example of non-“professional” tattooing in the home (thinking of how “hipster” homemade tattoos are so prevalent right now). I also find it fascinating that a non-military man would get a military-themed tattoo–what appealed to him about this image? (Here’s the original French…”Copie grossière d’un tatouage fréquent en France exécutée par ancien légionnaire chez un de ses amis qui n’a pas été soldat.”)
This is one of the many incredible images in a manuscript located essentially in my backyard at the University of Chicago Special Collections (image courtesy them, btw). It’s complied by Louis Vervaeck circa 1907 (clearly from a wide-ranging group of contributors as the hands/styles of the drawings encompass many different artists). Many of these images made it into Vervaeck’s book about tattooing. I’m hoping to do some sort of research project in the future comparing the manuscript to the published book.
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
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
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.
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
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)
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 promised book reviews when I started up Tattoo History Occasionally a few months ago. So…with the holiday giving season ramping up, I thought I’d start to crank some of these out (I have a large backlog). Those of you interested in tattoo history can add some interesting items to your wish lists or purchase these for like-minded recipients.
First up, an incredible audio book, Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants, tracing the life of the Moskowitz tattoo family out of New York. This 2-cd set provides a wealth of insight into old tattooing techniques and equipment, the culture of tattooing from the 1920s through the 1980s, and more general social context. It mostly revolves around Walter Moskowitz’s experiences, but also includes stories of his father, William (Willie), who learned from Charlie Wagner.
The project is impressively produced by Walter’s son Douglas Moscowitz who narrates throughout and seamlessly ties together all the audio clips. I particularly appreciated that this is not just a recording of a guy talking, but a professional oral history carefully edited with introductions to the clips, interjected context, different voices, and even background music here and there to keep the audio lively and provide ambiance. Hearing these stories as oral history brings them to life in a way that reading the words on pages would not. Besides tattoo history, a wealth of other material made the history nerd in me happy, such as anecdotes about life during WWII.
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.
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:
(A cover from one of the DVD issues.)
(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
Images cut out of library books have always fascinated me. Beyond the basic “What *was* that image anyway?”, follow up questions like “So why did someone steal the image” lead to flights of fantasy creating stories about clandestine image snatchers armed with razor blades and nefarious intentions.
Imagine my excitement when two of my library interests collided: finding books with images cut out and finding obscure tattoo history books. When I came across Erhard Riecke’s Das Tatauierungwesen im heutigen Europa (Jena, 1925) at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library, I found a great mystery to solve. Since 2004, the book has sat in my personal library (yes as a grad student, then faculty, and now alumnus I can keep books out for ages with proper renewals), and every time I opened it to peruse its pages I would get near the end of the plates section and be intrigued by this:
What was the missing image??? Although the section of plates was titled “Erotik”, the neighboring images were not particularly shocking or interesting…generic romantic images and some nudie girls. The previous plate had more of the same. But a look at the list of captions for that section revealed this gem with reference to the mystery: “Ornamental tatauierter Penis”. I hardly need to translate that for you…
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