A Brief Look at Forced Tattooing
01:12 PM
greek-tattoos.jpgHaving just written about Holocaust tattoos, I became curious about forced tattooing beyond Auschwitz. Hitler created nothing. His greatest evil was applying ancient barbaric practices to his time. Mass murder, extermination camps, frenzied national pride and race-baiting are tools of the past. So, too, is forced tattooing. 

Scholars argue whether the branding of concentration camp victims was an organizational tool, meant only to expedite his far greater crimes, or if it was part of the victimization. Indeed, the process of tattooing to differentiate, degrade and dehumanize is a practice as ancient as the beginning of religion itself.

Imagine yourself in Rome. Your Emperor is sleeping with his horse, quite literally, and drinking virgin blood out of a golden goblet. You, on the other hand, are living in squalor, burning in the unrelenting sun and suffering the perversions of poverty. So, you steal, and if caught, you are tattooed as punishment, permanently marked as a criminal. As Maarten Hesselt van Dinter writes on Mundurucu.com of forced tattooing:

"Their purpose was control and they were used to identify gladiators, soldiers, prisoners and slaves. Tattooing specific groups with clearly visible signs made monitoring their movements easier. From the fourth century, Roman recruits were tattooed with the emblems of their units. Apart from their administrative use, according to Plato, tattoos were also used as punishment. Another reason was humiliation."

Read more of Maarten's writing on tattoo history worldwide (with images and designs) in his brilliant book The World of Tattoo: An Illustrated History.

The same occurred in the 17h century of Japan, where serious criminals were marked on their arms and foreheads with various symbols representing their crimes and places of origin.

The same has happened forever amongst warring tribes of native peoples about which our own scholarship only prevents us from truly recognizing the power they conveyed through forced corporal manipulation.

Even when the criminal classes began to adopt their markings as signs of status, the punishment of forced tattooing remained. Russian inmates, most notable of all prisoners for their extensive and evolved physical hieroglyphics, would brand informants, snitches and homosexuals with unwanted tattoos. Say what you will about criminals, but many have a rigid moral order and a strong sense of visiting justice upon those who violate it. That they choose to use tattoos to stigmatize is proof of its power.

In the last few years and much closer to home, there has been a very public increase in acknowledging the forced inking against marginalized and under protected minorities. THIS STORY from Singapore, and THIS STORY from China describe tattooing as a form of domestic violence. THIS STORY describes an instance of child abuse that is not rare enough.

And so the practice continues, in our jails and neighbors' homes, taking what we celebrate as art and debasing it as infliction.

This post is not meant as a comprehensive academic overview, but a brief look at tattoo history that is not decorative but punitive. Those with more information on forced tattooing are welcome to share their thoughts in the comments.

amy tan once wrote about a chinese girl being tattooed by her family so she could be found/identified after the war.

I like this, history of tattooing

This, along with your previous article, is going to come in really handy when it comes to my Holocaust studies article, where I can write about whatever I like for my assignment. As a "tattoo writer" myself I've toyed with the idea of writing about all this, so this is really handy for when/ if I choose to write about forced tattooing- thank you very much!! :)

I think that "forced" tattooing happens more than gets publisized.
I have persomally tattooed my (now ex) wife agaist her will.
I did it as a punishment and to humiliate her and to make her ashamed of being naked in front of other men.
So she would be faithful to me !
It was a great turn-on for me and to my surprise to her too.
A friend of mine followed my example and tattooed his wife too !
We discussed it. For instance shaving her head would make it difficult to function in our society for some time, but has no permanence.
With a (or more) tattoos hidden under clothes, she can function normally, but behave modestly.

Almost twenty years ago I was kidnapped by my ex-husband.
He and two of his cronies took me on a boat to a (still unknown) island, probably in the Bahama's.
There they had set up a place, complete with generators, tents etc.
They forced me to strip and first cut off my long hair and shaved my head, in the weeks I was kept there they tattooed me extensively !!
It was a horrible experience I still have trauma's from it.
It changed my life miserably.
I hate my body now, I try not to look when I shower and keep my body, legs and arms all covered up, even here in Florida.
I have no sex life any more. The few people who know about those tattoos don't really believe my story...
The removal of so much tattooing is horribly painful and takes too much time, besides the cost is prohibitive!.
I believe that this form of torture happens more than is reported, for fear of it getting in the news.

connect with us

Marisa Kakoulas
Miguel Collins
Craig Dershowitz
Brian Grosz
Sean Risley
Patrick Sullivan
Needles and Sins powered by Moveable Type.

Site designed and programmed by Striplab.

NS logo designed by Viktor Koen.