When 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.
Read the full piece here.