Custom Tattooing in the 17th Century
08:25 AM
Lithgow tattoo.pngWhen I think about custom tattooing, it's usually in the context of contemporary tattoo culture, around the time when artists and tattoo collectors moved beyond the tattoo "menu" on shop walls, as Don Ed Hardy has described, and pursued personalized art. However, over the weekend, I learned of the experience of Scottish traveler and author William Lithgow, who, in 1612, went to Jerusalem and personalized a traditional pilgrimage tattoo -- going beyond a tattoo menu centuries before what's commonly considered the "tattoo Renaissance" of the seventies here in the US.    

In her article, "Custom Tattoo Work - Historical Improvisation During William Lithgow's 1612 Pilgrimage," tattoo historian Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman explores Lithgow's story of how "he customized his tattoo experience in the Holy Land."

Anna explains that most pilgrimage tattoos were "rendered by stamping the image from a stock set of motifs." [She recently received her own "Arms of Jerusalem" design on a trip to Jerusalem from the Razzouk family, which you can read about in this Atlas Obscura piece.] However, in Lithgow's account of his pilgrimage tattoo, he talks about modifying his tattoo to honor his monarch -- thereby, also making a political statement with his mark: 

In the last night of my staying at Jerusalem, which was at the holy grave, I remembring that bounden duty, & loving zeale, which I owe unto my native Prince; whom I in all humility (next and immediate to Christ Jesus) acknowledge to be the supreme head, and Governour of the true Christian and Catholicke Church; by the remembrance of this obligation I say, I caused one Elias Bethleete, a Christian inhabitour of Bethleem, to ingrave on the flesh of my right arme, The never-conquered Crowne of Scotland, and the now inconquerable Crowne of England, joyned also to it, with this inscription, painefully carved in letters, within the circle of the Crowne, Vivat Jacobus Rex.
Anna goes on to describe the historical background, the subsequent revisions to the text, and other interesting finds her detailed discussion. The significance of it all is nicely explained as follows: 

Many tend to think of "custom" tattoos as a relatively modern development, but there is no reason to think that earlier tattoo customers could not also see the potential of the art form--the communicative possibilities--and decide to use the medium to permanently express or memorialize content they chose.

Slightly later in the early modern period we also find other examples of tattoo customization from the history of colonization of North America. Travelers in the 17th century used the technology of native American tattooers to have European motifs inscribed. DiƩreville was one of several observers who noted this. In 1699, he wrote that the French in Acadia had Native Americans tattoo them with "all types of images, crosses, the name of Jesus, flowers; anything that one might want." Custom tattoos have deeper roots than one might presume.

Read the full piece here.

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.