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Neo-Victorian Tattooing in a Most Sincere Fashion, Darker and Richer

Neo-Victorian Tattooing in a Most Sincere Fashion, Darker and Richer
© Photograph by Edd Firm

It is a simple truth that tattooing largely reflects the visual culture from which it emerges, at least in the West. In the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries, European pilgrims to the Holy Lands were tattooed with the devotional iconographies of their faith (crosses, Christograms, images of Christ). At the turn of the nineteenth-century, tradesmen marked their skins with signs of their professions and sailors repeated on their bodies the suns, anchors and pierced hearts they carved into tobacco tins and whalebone whilst at sea. In the 1930s, Mickey Mouse appeared on the sheets of pre-drawn designs (“flash”) which tattooists traded amongst themselves and advertised to customers.

The 1880s and 1990s were the first heydays of professional tattooing in Britain, with the several high-end tattoo studios in the heart of London advertising their trade in socially aspirational publications such as Country Life, Tatler and the Sporting Times. In the moneyed salons of Victorian Britain, awash with Japanese imagery and artefacts since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, those of means and taste who were getting tattooed chose dragons, and snakes, and Orientalist demons, or, on occasion, laid out small fortunes and bore often dozens of hours of pain to have large reproductions of etchings by Reynolds, Constable and others permanently applied to their skin.

Until the invention of the electric tattoo machine in the early years of the twentieth-century, large-scale artistic tattooing was largely confined to those who could afford to spend the time and the money it would take to have their arms and backs covered in tattoos applied with slow, painstaking hand-tools, and so tattooists boasted (often not entirely truthfully) in articles in the popular press and amongst themselves of their upper-class clientele of aristocrats, princesses and kings (Edward VII was certainly tattooed in Jerusalem in 1862 and several British tattooers claimed to have tattooed him back at home, though no reputable primary source confirms this later coverage). Wealthy travellers ensured they were able to get “authentic”, complex tattoos in Japan, and the most wealthy of them even paid for their Japanese tattoo artists to travel back to Britain or North America so that their friends could be tattooed by a real Japanese master.

In the early years of the twenty-first-century, tattoo magazines on both sides of the Atlantic began to feature a new trend in contemporary tattooing. Suddenly, it seemed every tattooist in the anglophone world was being asked to tattoo images of men with moustaches and top-hats and monocles; pipes; women in corsets; animals wearing ostentatious military garb; Singer sewing machines; penny-farthings; pocket watches — in short, with images steeped with heavy-handed reference to the visual and material culture of the long nineteenth-century and its recent reimaginings. The revival of Victorian aesthetics in other media since the middle of the twentieth-century seems often to reproduce (or at least directly reference) those actually common during Victoria’s reign, even if the act of reproduction occurs through an ironic or parodic lens: steampunk clothing looks, at its roots, like Victorian clothing and costume; Gothic horror mash-ups of bookplate etchings, as in the work of Dan Hillier, do make direct aesthetic reference to nineteenth-century photographic collage. In tattooing, however, this is not the case. As the popularity of Victorian iconographies grew, it is unsurprising that the trend would be reflected in tattoo habits, and yet it is striking that neo-Victorianism manifests itself in tattooing not as a revival of Victorian tattoo practices, but in a reflection of what might loosely be called a Victorian “mood” in wider visual culture, drawing upon the ironised tropes of Victorian visual culture from printmaking, painting and clothing in the construction of a new vernacular fundamentally unlike the tattooing which was actually popular in the Victorian period.

One particular design — and the reaction to it — is indicative. Valerie Vargas, a tattoo artist based at Frith Street Tattoo in London, tattooed a solid full sleeve design on a girl in 2009 which became so popular that she eventually removed it from her website portfolio, so inundated was she with requests to reproduce it, or its elements, on other customers. The commissioned sleeve features a mustachioed man in a top-hat and cravat on the upper arm tightly embracing a Romany woman, shielding her against a pall of fog which envelopes them. On the lower arm, the fog clears to reveal a filigreed heart encircling an eye, as if from a Victorian embroidery pattern, and a Poe-esque raven set against a shining full moon, clutching a golden jewelled ruby pendant in its beak. The scene is punctuated throughout with dark red roses. Every element of this tattoo is composed with precise reference to Victorianism, and all its components combine as if as a collage to produce a distinctly Victorian affect, heavy with sideways, knowing allusions to class, taste, manners, ostentation and the occult which saturate neo-Victorian revivals more generally. What this scene does not feature, however, is any elements which would have actually been present even in the full sleeve commissions from the latter part of the nineteenth-century.

One image from a 1903 article in an English illustrated magazine provides an indicative comparison. In a biographical report on the work of famous London society tattoo artist Tom Riley — who claimed to have tattooed, amongst others, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg, Prince Christian Victor and Prince George of Greece — a picture appears captioned “A German lady, well known in society” (Fig. 8.2). The photograph features a woman in an expensive-looking, low-cut ruffled dress, her arms crossed over her chest. Her arms — like Valerie Vargas’ twenty-first-century customers’ — are heavily tattooed, covered in a collage of designs, but hers are distinctly Orientalist, or Japonesque in character: birds, dragons, spiders, butterflies, snakes and beetles cover her left and right biceps and forearms as if pinned to her by some demented naturalist; design motifs are commonly seen on furniture, fire-screens and decorative panels imported into Europe from Japan by the boatload in the nineteenth-century adorn her skin.

The visual culture of her time, and place, and culture, and class is borne on her body, indicative (at least for a while) of her cultured tastes, her appreciation of the authentic Oriental arts, and her appropriation of the habits and fashions of royal personages throughout Europe. The result is remarkable, beautiful and strange — for a modern audience to whom this story of upper-class tattooing in the Victorian period is largely forgotten, the thought, let alone the image, of a nineteenth-century woman with such ornate and visually arresting tattoo work is certainly shocking, as it testifies to a moment in both social and visual cultures which, unlike the painting, decorative arts and even architecture of the same period, has never been revived, revered or reappropriated.

Most strangely of all, this German lady wears a bag, hood or veil over her head for the photo, her face entirely obscured save for two small eye-holes, through which she squints towards the camera. By 1903, tattooing had already begun to fall from fashion amongst the upper classes. Tastes had shifted, perhaps driven by the easier and cheaper access to large-scale tattoos after the invention of the electric tattoo machine, perhaps simply by the whims of fashion, and though tattoo artists such as Tom Riley proclaimed their upper-class client base in their advertisements and interviews right through to the First World War. At the time of Victoria’s death, tattooing had already passed its peak as an upper-class fancy. It is possible that the lady was not, in fact, an aristocrat, and the hood was a clever marketing device by Mr Tom Riley to convince the readers of the magazine that his human canvasses were more blue-blooded than they actually were, but the most plausible explanation is simply that this tattooed woman wished to keep her habits private: as criminological and anthropological theories of tattooing’s inherent primitivism and connection with barbarism seeped into polite anglophone circles from the continent, where they had been gaining traction after the work of Cesare Lombroso and Alexandre Lacassagne, tattooed aristocrats and debutantes increasingly hid their tattoos away.

Clothing fashions of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, especially for women, did not often expose vast acres of flesh to public view in any case, but this lady’s choice to wear a hood for her photograph seems to imply, even as she boldly exposes her arms to the camera, some sense of shame, or embarrassment about having her name and reputation linked to an increasingly marginalised practice, or at least the desire to keep her tattoos private. (In an infamous similar example, Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry, who had been tattooed in Japan around 1900, caused something of a sensation in 1938 when the shortening of hemlines in womenswear trends revealed a hitherto-unknown snake tattoo coiled around her entire lower left leg.)

A historical amnesia has thus overcome popular understandings of tattooing’s history. As Victorian tattoo trends were suppressed in the popular imagination even shortly after the height of the practice’s popularity, these histories are today little known. Moreover, the design choices of these Victorian tattoo aficionados do not immediately resonate as Victorian in the present day, such that they do not carry the same allusions of class, taste, whimsy and mystery which ironic neo-Victorian reproductions in other media do.

It is unsurprising, then, that those enamoured enough of Victorianism today that they would tattoo its visual referents on their bodies choose the moustache, the pocket watch and the penny farthing (often even in the same design) over Japonisme or, as one nineteenth-century Scotch baronet was reported to have chosen, a copy of Sir Edwin Henry Landseer’s puppy portrait ‘Dignity and Impudence’ of 1839. Nevertheless, several contemporary tattoo artists do take the visual culture of Victorian painting more seriously in their work, and it is indeed possible to create neo-Victorian tattoos which do not rely entirely on an iconographic shorthand of nineteenth-century culture to imbue their work with an air of appreciation for the visual culture of late-nineteenth-century Britain.

The work of German tattoo artist Juergen Eckel, for example, looks both on paper and on skin as if it could have been lifted from the walls of the Guildhall; his portraits of women are reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites in the same way as John William Waterhouse’s were — echoes of the Brotherhood in mood, and gaze, and composition; soft, fleshy figures wrapped in sheaths of heavy, flowing cloth, clutching flowers; delicate, strange, angular faces heavy with melancholy and a profound, measured sense of certainty. Other art- historical influences are evident (that of art nouveau in particular) and customers will still request mustachioed men and pocket watches on occasion, but in his work there is little room for overt irony or the straightforward, tongue-in-cheek comedy. Instead, his tattoos look Victorian in a most sincere fashion, darker and richer than much other neo-Victorian work and with studied reference to the actual nineteenth-century source material in its production, from paintings to period-correct jewellery and design elements. The Gothic horror which saturates several of his pieces is profoundly Victorian in tone — ashen ravens often feature. Most importantly, however, Juergen Eckel is not studying the contours of Victorian visual culture in order to reproduce it directly; his work is not a parody of Victorian aesthetics, but a sure-footed set of responses to a visual culture he finds inspiring and beautiful more in tone than in motif.

In England, tattoo artist Rebecca Marsh — a collaborator and friend of Juergen Eckel’s — treads a similar path, her tattoos, drawings and even workspace set firmly within nineteenth-century style without recourse to overt parodic reproduction. Rebecca Marsh’s interests lie in taxidermy — her tattoo shop is a veritable menagerie of long-dead animals, in the style of a Victorian cabinet of curiosities — and her tattoo work reflects this, with animals featuring prominently: her renderings of birds, foxes and cats resemble the taxidermied tableaux popular in the Victorian era, dressed in ornate jewels and framed on the skin in complexly drawn surrounds referenced from furniture, embroidery and costume. Rebecca Marsh’s work is lighter in tone than Juergen Eckel’s, but she also avoids the ironic and the comic, each piece imbued with an honest, genuine and obvious love for the subject matter.

Though there has not, as yet, been a full-scale revival of Victorian tattooing, the influence of the nineteenth-century in certain twenty-first-century tattoo habits is undeniable. The most successful neo- Victorian tattooing, it seems, is that which does not draw directly on twentieth- and twenty-first-century revivalist tropes, but which takes its aesthetic cues directly from the nineteenth century — even if those cues come overwhelmingly from media other than tattooing. Whilst there has been no shortage of jokey, hollow, irreverent neo-Victorian tattoos in recent years — having an ironic handlebar moustache tattooed on the inside of your index finger, such that it was possible to hold it above your top lip, actually briefly reached the status of a bonafide “trend” in 2003 — the work of tattoo artists whose connection to the Victorian period is in the moods of late-nineteenth-century art and design, rather than in its most easily recognised (and parodied) symbols show that much more interesting uses and reuses of this most influential of periods in art history can be made on skin.


Also published on Medium.




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