Tattooing the Body, the Marking of a Culture

Jill A. Fisher
Jill A. Fisher

Literature on American tattooing appears in varied forms, from the scholarly journals of anthropology, history and sociology to newspaper stand magazines that can be construed as “soft” pornography.

What this spectrum of literary forms has in common is a relative marginalization in which American tattooing is perceived as part of a deviant subculture and not a topic of serious intellectual interest.

Academics involved in this research have referred to colleagues’ attitudes about research on tattooing as a deviant interest in deviance. In addition, many academics have an agenda of legitimating the practice of tattooing by explicating its social and cultural patterns.

Although much of this work is important scholarly investigation, I have found that many authors romanticize the practice of tattooing in ways that often do not correspond with their analyses.

This article will, in part, respond to the tensions between analyzing and romanticizing tattooing as cultural practice(s).

The purpose of this article is to explore the complex relationship between power and the physical and social practices of tattooing in the late capitalist state.

Beginning with the history of tattooing as a cultural practice — from ancient Greece through the colonial period to contemporary United States of America — I will highlight the temporal and geographical changes in the practices and perceptions of tattooing.

My hope is that its history in Western civilization will offer insights into the ways in which tattooing is practised in the late twentieth-century United States of America.

In addition to creating a historical narrative, I will also situate the sociocultural practice of tattooing the body for the tattooist and the “tattooee”.

This investigation into body inscription will serve as a means to elucidate the contemporary practice of tattooing as one that is simultaneously physical and social, with multiple levels of constructed meaning. And finally, I will explore the ways in which tattooing acts as a cultural signifier in the late twentieth-century United States of America.

I will attempt to show how tattooing as a form of body modification can be analysed as a form of resistance to or a symptom of a culture that has commodified the body.

The history of tattooing is somewhat difficult to trace. Although the word “tattoo” did not emerge until James Cook’s voyage to Polynesia in the eighteenth-century, the practice of indelibly inking the body has a much longer history.

Jones (2000) posits that the Greek word stigma(ta) actually indicated tattooing and that evidence suggests that this word was then transmitted to the Romans. Of course, this linking of tattooing and stigma has contemporary value when considering the current meaning of “stigma” in English. It marries the process or mark of tattooing with its interpretation, indicating that the meaning of stigma today may come from the ancient practice of tattooing.

In spite of the uncertainty surrounding names associated with the practice of tattooing, Jones suggests that the Greeks were not the first to tattoo. He writes: “Cultures which were familiar to the ancient Greeks practised what we would call tattooing… Tattooing in its social aspect, whether as a mark of high status or as pure decoration, the Greeks associated with ‘barbarians’ of the uncivilized kind, and never adopted it.” (2000: 15)

The way in which tattooing was adopted by the Greeks was as a punitive or proprietary action. In other words, because the Greeks associated stigmata with their rival neighbours, its social importance was degraded and, subsequently, stigmata were used for marking “Others” within Greek culture, such as criminals and slaves.

This association between social others and tattooing was then transmitted from Greece to the Romans. Gustafson (2000) interprets the use of tattooing by the Romans as a state control mechanism.

Using a Foucauldian framework to think through social control, he quotes from Discipline and Punish, “But the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs” (Gustafson, 2000: 24).

By indelibly marking the unconsenting bodies of criminals and slaves, the Roman state could more easily control their movements by means of the external mark upon these individuals. Their bodies would act as agents of the state emitting a visible sign of their social role.

Both Jones (2000) and Gustafson (2000) are interested in the visibility and messages of these tattoos. Jones has posited that the act of tattooing the foreheads of slaves and criminals must have been common up until the forth-century when Roman Emperor Constantine explicitly forbade inscribing the face with tattoos.

Constantine suggested that the hands or calves should be tattooed instead. His reasoning, as Jones interprets the texts, is that “the face, which has been formed in the image of the divine beauty, will be defiled as little as possible” (Jones, 2000: 13).

Gustafson (2000) has identified three types of penal tattoos. The most common inscribed the name of the crime on the criminals’ bodies. The other two were inscriptions of the name of the emperor under whom the crime was committed and the name of the punishment that the criminals were given.

Established as a punitive or proprietary symbol in Greece, tattooing continued through the Middle Ages in Europe as a means to mark the bodies of criminals, and thus tattooing as a social practice in Western civilization became intertwined with criminality and deviance.

Introduced as a practice of the enemy in ancient Greece, tattooing’s reintroduction into European culture was through similar circumstances during the eighteenth-century. The colonialist projects in Africa, Asia and the “New World” (re)presented tattooing as a practice of the primitives who would become the colonized (i.e. Africa and Asia) or the enemies of colonization (i.e. Native North and South Americans). How did this re-emergence of tattooing influence the social and cultural patterns of tattooing in Europe and what would become the United States of America?

Published in 1769, James Cook’s memoirs of his travels to the South Sea Islands introduced the word “tatau” into the English language from the Polynesian word referring to the practice of inscribing the skin with indelible ink.

This word quickly morphed into “tattoo” in English and spread through other European languages, including French and Spanish. It is very unclear in the literature if penal tattooing practices were still occurring at the time the word was introduced into the language. There is evidence, however, that prisoners were “tattooed” at the end of the eighteenth- and in the early nineteenth-century.

After tracing the evolution of the word “tatau” into European languages and documenting the early anthropological work on body modification in the colonies, there is little scholarly work in history or other disciplines examining tattooing practices in Europe or the United States of America from 1770 to 1860 (Bradley, 2000; Caplan, 2000a).

It is probable that during this period sailors were returning to their homelands with tattoos that they had received on their voyages. There is also some indication that tattooists were practising in Europe and the United States of America, but who they were and what their tattooing methods were remaining unclear.

One of the first explicit references to tattooing that offers insight into eighteenth-century practice was during the American Civil War. Alan Govenar (2000) has found evidence that tattooing was an acceptable practice for soldiers, especially tattoos that were overtly political and were symbols of allegiance to their “side” in the war.

In his article, Govenar suggests that the American Civil War was the first instance in which soldiers were systematically tattooed with symbols of the military or their cause.

One way in which to interpret this mass tattooing practice is that the Civil War was an event in which people were struggling with their positions in a politically confusing time. Other than the colour associated with the military uniforms, what were the differences between Confederate and Union men who were caught in the war?

Perhaps through creating specific war images, and inscribing them on the bodies of soldiers, the opposing armies could create a difference between otherwise very similar men.

Changes in the social practices of tattooing were also significant for prisoners. During the 1880s, criminologists in France and Italy became interested in a cryptography of tattoos. They believed that tattoos were bodily inscriptions of the crimes and offences of criminals and deviants, and consequently, they set out to decipher the meaning of the imagery (Caplan, 2000a).

Thus tattoos were seen as physical indicators of criminality. By the late nineteenth-century, in France and Italy, tattooing as a social practice had changed only a little from 2000 years before.

The most important change had been from non-consensual tattooing of prisoners to mark their bodies with their crimes, to voluntary tattooing, which was perceived by the state as evidence of their crimes.

Ironically, during this same period, England and the United States of America were experiencing a tattoo “craze” in “fashionable society” in spite of the long-standing association of tattoos with criminality (Bradley, 2000).

Until the 1880s, criminals, sailors and the working class were the major groups that were tattooed. Suddenly, toward the end of the 1880s, tattoos became fashionable and spread through the upper classes of England and the United States of America. Tattoos remained fashionable for the next decade or two.

In spite of more socioeconomic groups seeking tattoos during this time, there was no sense of class unification through tattooing. Those in the lower classes receiving tattoos were still interpreted by the tattooed wealthy as deviant.

In part, this attitude was based on tattoo imagery and designs, which changed quickly during this period. Bradley clarifies this point: “On the most basic level, tattoos acted as a badge of social and cultural differentiation that separated the tattooed from the non-tattooed. On a deeper level, however, social and cultural homogeneity did not unite the tattooed, for the subject matter and aesthetic style of the tattoos created a fault-line that divided the classes.” (Bradley, 2000: 148)

One of the characteristics of the new design was the addition of the “ethnic” tattoo. This generally meant designs that were influenced by Japanese tattoos.

Coming to symbolise for the wealthy a (usually false) message of worldliness, these tattoos indicated that its bearer had travelled and consumed other cultures. This physical appropriation of another culture was seen as a class commodity in which one’s social standing could be based on the consumption of other cultures, a form of what I call cultural cannibalism.

Thus, the design of the tattoo was crucial for sending specific class messages for the wealthy, while tattoo designs were generally chosen based on personal experiences or characteristics among the working class. One way of (over)simplifying this class difference can be summed up as follows: in the wealthy class, the purpose of tattoos was to impress, and in the working class, tattoos were to express.

One of the questions that is worth exploring about the upper-class interest in tattooing is why tattooing become fashionable at this precise historic moment in these locations.

One of the most interesting events that parallels the tattooing trend is the development of the electric tattoo machine. With dates of this technology’s emergence varying from as early as the 1870s to the 1890s to its United States of America patent in 1901, most authors cannot agree when the electric tattoo machine actually came into use in the United States of America (Blanchard, 1994; Bradley 2000; Govenar 2000; Sanders, 1989).

One of the reasons that the date is so uncertain is that it came into use quietly. Designed and used privately for years before being patented, the electric tattoo machine was the tool of one individual before it was diffused into the tattooing trade.

Although the date is uncertain, there is consensus as to the inventor: New York City tattooist Sam O’Reilly. Building his design from Edison’s 1876 electric stencil pen, O’Reilly called his device the “tattaugraph” (Sanders, 1989).

This device was seen as an important improvement for tattooing because: “The electric tattoo machine (patterned after the rotary mechanism of a sewing machine) not only quickened the process and decreased the pain involved, but facilitated greater detail and subtlety in colouration and shading. With the increased technical proficiency in tattooing itself, the quality of the drawings and paintings on which they were based also improved.” (Govenar, 2000: 215)

Although the machine had the potential for creating better-quality drawings, it was seen as a means of deskilling the tattooist because it was “easier” to inscribe the designs well.

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