Tattoo history: the stories of 11 inked individuals
From religious and cultural practices, to acts of sedition, the art of tattooing dates back many thousands of years. Dr Matt Lodder, author of a new book on tattoo history, shares the incredible stories of 11 inked individuals
Ötzi and the Gebelein Man
Buried in ice and desert respectively more than 5,000 years ago, these natural mummies were preserved – as were their tattoos
The oldest preserved tattoos yet discovered are on Ötzi, the so-called ‘Iceman’ excavated from the Alpine permafrost at the border between Austria and Italy in 1991. Ötzi lived around 5,300 years ago during the early Bronze Age, and his serendipitously preserved body is covered with 61 small tattoo marks made with ash. Since next to nothing is known about Ötzi’s cultural tradition, deciphering his tattoos with any certainty is not possible, but the dashes and crosses are tattooed primarily on sites of the body where he seemed to have suffered from particular ailments, inflammation or pain. Their locations suggest that they may have served some magical or medical purpose, intended to ease pain or invoke healing perhaps.
Of a similar age is the Gebelein Man, who lived in predynastic Egypt, just prior to the rule of the first pharaoh. Like Ötzi, his body was preserved by lucky accident in the desiccation of the North African desert, and – also like Ötzi – he was tattooed. While the body was brought to the British Museum in 1899 and been on display ever since, it was only recently, in 2018, that modern imaging techniques finally revealed his tattooing. On his arms, the Gebelein Man sports a lively image of a bull and another of a sheep, perhaps symbols of allegiance, masculine bravado, or local fashion.
As new scanning techniques evolve and new technologies are developed, scientists are discovering more and more permanent marks on preserved human bodies from history, frequently adding data points to our understanding of the deep history of the intimate art of tattooing.
The Chinese general’s ink was an unimpeachable (and lawful) sign of his commitment to his nation
Yue Fei is one of China’s greatest national heroes: an 11th-century general who led armies of the Song Dynasty into battle against rival northern tribes. He has become something of a quasi-mythical figure, said to have possessed super-human strength and a mastery of archery, martial arts and spear fighting. One of the key scenes in Yue Fei’s life story tells of how he was tattooed by his mother, who supposedly wept profoundly as she took her embroidery needle and inscribed on his back the characters ‘Serve the country with utmost loyalty’.
To be tattooed was unusual, since the Han Chinese had no mainstream tradition of the art, but in the narrative of his heroism that served as a stark illustration of just how profoundly he was committed to the national project. In carrying out the tattoo, his mother also symbolically gave him to the country, relinquishing her maternal bond and replacing it with one of unending devotion to the cause of China. Many years later, the stories claim, Yue Fei was brought to court on trumped-up charges of treason by a rival seeking to defame him.
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In a dramatic moment of legal theatrics, Yue Fei’s shirt billowed up to reveal the tattoo. The words on his back convinced the judge that Yue Fei, far from being treasonous, was fiercely loyal and, by the same token, that his accuser was lying.
An adventurer and speedster, Joe proudly tattooed her arms in a display of masculinity, making her a genderqueer icon
The British heiress – and step-daughter of a doctor who injected the testicular pulp of monkeys into his patients in futile experiments to boost virility – Joe Carstairs was a swashbuckling, genderqueer pioneer; a lover of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Though many society ladies had been delicately tattooed through the late-19th and early 20th centuries, Joe took up bold sailor tattooing, the perfect addition to a look that actively sought to present as masculine.
During the 1920s and ‘30s, Joe, with her tattooed arms, proudly challenged gender stereotypes, becoming a professional powerboat racer, setting speed records and ultimately buying an island in the Bahamas over which she ruled. Her story is illustrative of wider conversations in history and in the present day about class, gender, self-fashioning, and the interrelation between our bodies, our identities, and our minds.
The teenage girl hoped her tattoos would help her join the navy, but instead she wound up in a correctional institution
In 1906, a young, sassy runaway called Madeline Altman was picked up by the New York Children’s Society, having been found in a Bowery saloon with her chest bandaged, her arms swollen, and covered in sailor tattoos. The daughter of an insurance salesman, the 15-year-old Altman had grown so enamoured of romantic tales of life at sea that she longed to join the navy – getting tattoos and dressing as a boy to better her chances.
The tattoo artists who marked her were variously imprisoned and fined, but to cure her ‘sea-madness’ required a desperate measure. Altman was sent to the House of Mercy, an austere correctional institution intended to educate and reform young women from their moral transgressions. It is unknown precisely what befell her, although contemporary reports tell of gagging, humiliation, head-shaving and force-feeding.
Her story offers a glimpse into the brutal realities of early 20th-century attitudes to childhood, moral and physical health, and the acceptable limits of young women and girls.
Jane and Mary
Mistaken as members of a gang, the case of two London women highlights the link made in the 19th century between tattoos and crime
To this day, and despite its surging popularity, tattooing can still conjure up in the imagination an idea of criminality. This is something of a recent association, however. The link between tattoos and crime really only solidified in the 19th century, as early criminologists – such as Cesare Lombroso in Italy, Alexandre Lacassagne in France and social reformer Havelock Ellis in England – sought to explore the relationship between the human body and the mind and character. While the notion that physical disfigurement was somehow indicative of moral failure has a long history, by the 19th century it had intertwined with racialised theories of cultural evolution, giving rise to the belief that criminal tendencies could be divined from studying things such as the shape of someone’s head. In a similar vein, tattooing had become increasingly associated with ‘primitivism’ in the aftermath of European encounters with Pacific peoples, and so tattooed people were said to be atavistic and less evolved than those without tattoos.
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For some criminologists, the presence of tattooing was enough to declare that someone was a latent criminal, even if they had not committed a crime. In Dickensian-era London, at a time when tattooing among the poor was growing in fashion, this apparent link generated a veritable moral panic about the so-called ‘Gang of Forty Thieves’, discernible by the distinctive mark on their bodies. In one notable case, two women – Jane White and Mary Cunningham – were arrested for robbing a naive man down in London for business.
They sozzled him with drink, pulled his trousers down, and nabbed his purse before he knew what was happening. When Jane and Mary were arrested in 1838, their tattoos were taken as proof that they were members of the Forty Thieves. It took a savvy gaoler, Mr Waddington, to point out that no such gang existed, and the fact tattooed people were often in court did not mean they all knew each other. The ‘mark’, far from being distinctive, was actually a huge range of symbols and designs. Simply, many people had tattoos – and some were criminals.
Before news of Captain Cook’s voyages to the Pacific spread, a tattooed Inuit woman was brought to England
Mikak was an Inuit woman from Qikiqtaaluk, in the northernmost regions of modern-day Canada, who in 1768 was brought to England as a captive. The British governor of Newfoundland, Hugh Palliser, hoped to impress her with the lavish lifestyles of the English upper classes – she was the latest in a long line of tattooed people from the Americas who travelled to Europe since the 16th century. If Mikak was as awed by what she saw in England as Palliser intended, she may be a useful diplomatic envoy of sorts, able to convince members of her community back home that trading with the English was preferable to resisting colonial efforts.
Praised for her intelligence and grace, Mikak met Queen Charlotte, went to the theatre, and sat with her infant son for a portrait by John Russell, which was then exhibited in the first Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1769. Like all Inuit women in her time, her face was tattooed in the traditional manner, and the spidery blue lines in her skin are clearly visible in the painting. In the subsequent centuries, many writers and scholars asserted that tattooing was unknown in Europe before Captain James Cook’s encounters with the peoples of Pacific islands during his famous voyages. But in Mikak’s portrait, her tattooed face would have been seen by the highest echelons of English society in the months before Cook had even first arrived in Tahiti.
Her story, and the fact it had been forgotten as part of the history of tattooing, serves to show how our understanding of the past is a product not just of discovery, but of collective forgetting. As European colonisation gained apace throughout the 19th century, so too did the initial conceptions of tattooing. It was only a few short decades after the Pacific encounters of the 1770s that many writers were boldly claiming that tattooing – which they described as a particularly barbaric practice – had only recently been discovered.
Tattooing became an act of defiance in a WWII prison camp, until the kommandant got involved
After being captured at Dunkirk in 1940, during World War II, a tattoo artist named Charlie Dick was able to make use of his trade while interred at a Nazi prisoner of war camp in Poland. It earned him extra rations, and kept up morale among the inmates. From his bunk, he tattooed men with symbols of hope and home in return for cigarettes and bread. Then one day, the brutal kommandant approached Dick with a request of a large custom design, including a Nazi eagle.
In his memoirs, Dick wrote graphically of this opportunity to hurt and maim the much-hated kommandant, and gleefully recalled how he selected especially barbed and rusty needles for the job. To his astonishment and disgust, however, the harder he tattooed, the more the kommandant enjoyed it. The man was an unrepentant sadist who relished the pain. It was a risky move, since the German army suppressed tattooing. As for Dick, he returned to his trade in Northumbria after the war, and even completed unfinished tattoos he had begun in the camp.
In the 1970s, a friend wrote to him to say: “Charlie, always remember this: the best people are tattooed.” The kommandant would have surely been considered an exception, though.
A future king’s permanent pilgrimage memento inspired a tattooing boom
During a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1862, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) noted in his diary: “I was tatooed [sic] by a Native.” Christian travellers to the holy city had been marking the trip with tattoos since the late-16th century, and Bertie, as his family called him, joined in the tradition. He had been sent by Queen Victoria in the aftermath of Prince Albert’s death, presumably to encourage the young royal to mature somewhat, but instead he took the opportunity to be marked with a design of several crosses, rather aptly given that he was the future head of the Church of England.
Pilgrimage tattooing, from the early modern period to the time of Bertie’s visit, combines both sincere religious devotional practice and something akin to a travel souvenir, permanently acting as a reminder of an important voyage and as a signifier of faith. Bertie wanted to keep the existence of his tattoo private, but the story came out in 1881 when a French writer happened to visit the same tattooing studio and noticed a framed letter of thanks from the prince. That same year, Edward’s sons George (the future George V) and Albert Victor were also both tattooed in Japan – and by the same man who had tattooed their father in Jerusalem. The royal tattoos captured the public imagination and inspired so many people to seek out their own that tattooing quickly became a booming business in England and the United States.
A legal cause célèbre put tattoos front and centre in order to prove a man’s identity
In 1854, the aristocratic scion Roger Tichborne was presumed lost at sea after his ship went down off the coast of Brazil. But then, more than a decade later, he miraculously appeared in Australia. True, he had grown much larger and trauma had caused him to forget key details of his adolescence, including how to speak his mother tongue of French, but he looked set to inherit the family fortune and the Tichborne baronetcy. Not everyone was convinced, and rival heirs sued him as an imposter.
In a dramatic courtroom twist, it was only the absence of Roger’s tattoos – that he got while at boarding school – which proved that far from being an amnesiac in line to inherit vast wealth, the re-discovered Roger was in fact a butcher’s son from Wapping. In the aftermath of this sensational episode, members of the House of Lords recommended that all peers tattoo their children to stave off any such fraudulent claims in future.
Dr Matt Lodder is a senior lecturer in art history and theory at the University of Essex. Specialising in the history of tattooing, he is the author of Painted People: Humanity in 21 Tattoos (HarperCollins, 2022). He discusses the history of tattooing through the lives and stories of 21 individuals – including some of those featured in this article – on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
This article was first published in the January 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
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