A Brief Look at Forced Tattooing
Having 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.