By Nicole Baker ~
One of the joys of working at the National Library of Medicine is the opportunity to connect some of my personal passions with our institution’s historical collections. I was pleased to discover several items providing various viewpoints on tattooing, a practice that has become mainstream, particularly in younger adults. In fact, a Harris poll in 2015 found that nearly half (47%) of those 18–35 years old reported they had a tattoo. I got my first tattoo at 18 years old and have been collecting pieces ever since, adding up to my current total of 6.
One of the most entertaining texts I found was Tattooing Among Civilized People by Robert Fletcher, a paper read before the Anthropological Society of Washington in 1883. Fletcher defines tattooing as “…derived from a Polynesian word, tattau… which consists in the introduction under the cutaneous epidermis, at different depths, of coloring matter, in order to produce some design which will be of very long duration.”
He conducted a review of individuals with tattoos to understand the location, subject, ages, and other notable features of the art on the body. Amongst other details he presents, one of my favorite sections is related to examples of inscriptions seen on individuals in various languages and cultures. Then as now, inscriptions are a popular selection for permanent ink, and Fletcher lists “Hurrah for France and Fried Potatoes!” as an actual example he saw.
Tattooing as punishment is another theme in the history of practice. Flecher relates a story from Burma in which a woman was forcibly tattooed as a punishment for undesirable behaviors, resulting in the “destruction” of her beauty. A notorious example of this, Georgius Constantine, was known as the Greek Albanian. The author devotes several pages to the story of Constantine, who was covered nearly head to toe in what is estimated to be 388 figures throughout the skin. Having so many tattoos at that time was considered a medical anomaly, and as such, Constantine traveled with a famous professor of diseases of the skin, despite his markings not being at all related to a disease. His case is featured in the monumental 1872 Atlas of Skin Diseases by Ferdinand Hebra. The legend goes that Constantine was taken prisoner in Burma during a Chinese expedition and was sentenced to be tattooed. This perhaps fabricated story sustained his fame and eventually led to him touring with P.T. Barnum as an exhibit. Fletcher describes the locations and designs of each figure on Constantine’s skin, including nature elements like animals and fruit.
Largely, the recurring theme of Fletcher’s text is that tattooing in the West during the late 18th century was restricted to transients, criminals, soldiers, and sailors, and that women with tattoos were unusual and generally viewed as unattractive. In the author’s own words:
“When large bodies of men are thrown together, with much idle time, it is among them that we should expect to find a custom like tattooing most prevalent.” —Robert Flecher, 1883
A 2017 article in the World Journal of Psychiatry (WJP) titled “Tattoos as a Window to the Psyche: How Talking About Skin Art Can Inform Psychiatric Practice” explores the modern psychological aspects in order to understand how these stigmas may persist in current tattoo culture. When exploring contemporary motivations behind tattooing, the authors claim that the chief motivation is often “the desire to create and maintain a distinct self-identity by controlling one’s appearance” Another interesting aspect that this article explores is that of gender-identity and the varying attractions towards body adornment:
“Motivations for tattooing vary between genders, with women more likely to seek tattoos for personal decoration and to feel more independent, and men more likely to use them as symbols of group identity.” —Roggenkamp et al., 2017
Some historical viewpoints remain salient today; men appear to be more likely to be attracted to tattooing in order to tie themselves to a group identity that represented their military service, comradery, and values. In one case study from the WJP article, a participant conveys the intense feelings he has towards the loss of his fellow soldiers: “He admitted that he felt deep, intolerable grief for the loss of these friends and used the tattoo to project this loss out onto the world because he felt incapable of dealing with it in any other way.” In this way, tattoos can function as a coping mechanism for difficult losses or other tragedies in life as well as the desire to beautify one’s body.
Contrary to traditional stereotypes, most adults with tattoos do not associate them with rebelliousness or cultural alienation, do not usually obtain them impulsively or while intoxicated, and do not regret getting them afterwards. —Roggenkamp et al., 2017
Thinking about my own experiences with tattoos, I find that my reasoning behind each piece has varied greatly. Some took months to collaboratively design with a tattoo artist while others were designs I had seen an artist post online that really resonated with me, either because it was striking or meaningful (not always both). I have a couple that don’t really mean anything at all, but they’re beautiful and I love them for that. Among my tattoos, I have an inscription that I got with my mother, a little moth and moon that matches my best friend’s butterfly and sun tattoo, and a large skull with remembrance poppies that had actually been designed for someone else but ended up finding a permanent home with me. Each piece, no matter how different or seemingly trivial, represents a sort of snapshot into who I am, experiences I’ve had, people who are important to me, and areas of interest. I’m drawn to tattoos because of their inherent ability to tell the outside world about myself without using any words, much like clothing or other outer characteristics. While the general attitude towards tattoos has improved rapidly in my lifetime, it’s interesting to think that something so commonplace today was so recently considered a mark of poor character and values.
Nicole Baker is a Reference Librarian in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.