Last week, Vice published "The History of Tattooed Ladies from Freakshows to Reality TV," in which writer Zach Sokol interviewed Anni Irish, who had just given a talk at The Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn entitled "The American Tattooed Ladies: 1840-2015." This article, which followed up on the talk, has been getting a lot of traction on social media and caught the attention of academics, who uncovered a number of myths and misstatements in the piece.
On her Tattoo History Daily Facebook page, Anna Felicity Friedman posted a link to the article and invited other tattoo scholars to point out errors in Anni's interview. Experts flooded the comment thread. I highly recommend reading them all.
Instead of just writing a critical blog post on the article, Anna wrote a post offering guidance to journalists: "Questions to Ask When Writing About Tattoo History and Culture." Other contributors to the list include Matt Lodder and Amelia Klem Osterud, author of the book "The Tattooed Lady: A History."
Questions include the following:
Are you reiterating or perpetuating any broad popular assumptions that might be myth? Two classic myth examples are that modern Western tattooing derived from Cook's voyages to Polynesia and that Western tattooing was previously only the purview of sailors, bikers, criminals, gangs, the lower class, etc. etc.I hope that this list of questions, and the discussions behind them, get just as much attention as the Vice article.
Here are some more N+S posts on tattoo myths:
* Tattoo History Myths Exposed
* The Cook Myth & Western Tattooing
* Setting the Tattoo History Record Straight
* Tattoo Cliches Through the Ages
Celtic tattoos above by Colin Dale.
UPDATE: Just added a new tattoo above by Colin Dale, and some more words from Pat.
Yesterday, NPR posted a radio piece and article entitled, "The American Origins Of The Not-So-Traditional Celtic Knot Tattoo" -- a rather obnoxious discussion led by Ari Shapiro, who seemingly knows nothing about tattoos, but finds himself funny to mock them. Ari focuses his snarky lens on tattoos inspired by Celtic art, which he describes as a "sort of the 'lite rock' radio station of tattoos: pretty, bland and inoffensive."
In the article, Ari interviews Kevin McNamara at the Dublin Ink tattoo parlor, who states that he tattoos, although "not a literal number," about 40 of Celtic knots and shamrocks, a week, mostly on Americans with fanny packs and baseball hats. He explains that, for the first couple of years, that's how he made his money. Putting aside the bad taste of publicly mocking clients who contribute to one's retirement fund, what is left out of that interview is really why Americans of Irish heritage seek that type of artwork, how many want to celebrate their roots and feel a connection to something they hold important.
The only redeeming feature of this piece is tattoo historian Anna Felicity Friedman, who runs the blog TattooHistorian, and has been a guest blogger here a number of times. Anna explains that there's no evidence of Celtic tattooing in antiquity, but that the practice only came to Ireland in the last century. She also offers some thoughts on the American origins of Celtic tattoo work. With her expertise, Anna should have been asked more substantive questions to make this a less superficial piece.
A more interesting conversation should also have included Pat Fish in Santa Barbara, CA, who has been tattooing Celtic designs for three decades, and says that she finds it "endlessly fascinating and challenging to bring the intricate art of the ancient illuminated manuscripts and standing stones to life in skin."
When I discussed the NPR piece with Pat, via email, here's what she said:
Well, isn't THAT a bit rude. Except for the fact that, if it "started" on the West Coast in the 1980s, that was solely down to me. No one I met at the time in the USA was doing any Celtic designs, too busy with kanji and Harley wings! As for tribal/blackwork Cliff Raven was doing what he called "Pre-Technological Black Graphic" tattooing in the 1980's but what we now call "Tribal" didn't start becoming wildly popular until that 1991 flash by Leo Zulueta...But I always saw the inspirational Celtic tattoo work by Europeans at the conventions, from the very beginning in 1984, I was watching Micky Sharpz, Lal Hardy, John Sargerson, and Tattoo Eus. They were all ahead of me by years.On Pat's site LuckyFish.com, she shares more of her work and thoughts on Celtic tattooing. I also highly recommend you check her process of creating the designs on this page of her site.
Another artist who I would have loved to see included is Colin Dale of Skin & Bone in Copenhagen, who is renowned for his Nordic & Celtic tattoo work, particularly his hand tattoo work. Colin curated and wrote the introduction to the chapter on Celtic and Nordic tattoos in my latest book, Black Tattoo Art 2, showing the power and beauty of these designs.
But to present something weighty like that would take more work, and it's much easier to point & laugh.
A bunch of news outlets have picked up the TED-Ed "The history of tattoos" animation piece (embedded above), which is a cool looking flashy History 101 video; however, the piece contains a number of errors, including many of the common tattoo myths, which get circulated around the internet as fact.
Thankfully, tattoo historian Anna Felicity Friedman, PhD, has taken the time to set the record straight in her post TED-Ed Does Tattoo History...Sigh. Here are just some of her corrections to the info put forth in the video.
1:33-"Stories of Cook's findings" certainly did not "spark a craze in Victorian English high society"! The mid-to-late 18th century is a long, long way off from the late 19th century!!! Tourist visits to Japan post its "opening to the West" by Matthew Perry et al. and other then-contemporary factors sparked said Victorian craze.
Read many more of Anna's corrections here.
Anna also notes, which I think is quite important, that TED-Ed gets marketed as quality educational materials (even if not reviewed by experts), so this misinfo on tattooing continues to spread. I applaud her for taking the time to set the record straight, and I hope her corrections get as much traction as the video.
Sydney Parkinson's illustration of a tattooed Maori from Cook's first voyage.
In case you missed it on the Needles & Sins Facebook group yesterday, Anna Felicity Friedman recently posted a large portion of her tattoo-history dissertation on her wonderful TattooHistorian.com blog about the "Cook myth," which, as she writes, is "the common assumption that modern Western tattooing somehow derived from contact with Polynesian peoples during Captain James Cook's voyages in the late 18th century."
Here's a bit from her writing:
In addition to demonstrating that tattoos were often seen in a positive, or at least neutral, light, a crucial subsidiary aim of this dissertation is to debunk what can be termed the "Cook myth": the perception in many scholarly and popular texts from at least the 1950s that the historical origins of modern tattooing among Westerners exclusively derived from Cook's first voyage to the Pacific and his and his crews' encounters with tattooed people in Tahiti--that Cook, et. al., somehow "discovered" or "reinvigorated" tattooing. But this is clearly not the case. A look at texts from before the mid-eighteenth century demonstrates that many authors, explorers, scientists, etc. were wellfamiliar with the practice of permanently marking the body with a substance embedded underneath the skin. For example, one of Cook's contemporaries, explorer Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu, writing about the Marquesan tattooing he saw in 1791, noted the similarities to and contrasts with the European tattooing that he said was not only common but of great antiquity:Read more, and check the footnotes for additional reference, here.
Image via the British Museum.
An "intimate tattoo" found on a 1,300 year-old mummy is one of the highlights of the British Museum's "Ancient lives new discoveries" -- an exhibit that unlocks "hidden secrets to build up a picture" of the lives of eight people from ancient Egypt and Sudan, whose preserved bodies were analyzed, using methods such as CAT scans, to put the pieces together of who they were. The exhibit runs from May 22 to November 30, 2014, but if you can't make it to London, there are a number of outlets online, which offer some juicy details on that tattoo. Turns out it's more pious than sexy.
According to The Telegraph, one of the eight mummies, who was found in 2005 on an archeological dig in Sudan, had, on her right inner thigh, a tattoo with a monogram of a name spelled in Ancient Greek. Here's more from the article:
One of the mummies, whose remains were found just seven years ago, was so well preserved that archaeologists could almost make out the tattoo on her skin on the inner thigh of her right leg with the naked eye. Infra-red technology helped define it more clearly.
There's also an interesting short video on The Telegraph that further discusses the tattooed mummy, and the others in the exhibit. Check it.
The Mirror also had a piece on the mummy, which I found on the wonderful Tattoo History Daily. The editor of the blog, Anna Felicity Friedman, also posted the article on her personal Facebook page, and there's an excellent discussion in the comments, including links to further information on tattooed mummies, such as Gemma Angel's articles (Part I and Part II) on tattooing in ancient Egypt.
As I often say, whenever you hear people talk about a "tattoo trend," remind them that it's one of the oldest "trends" of mankind.
Last week, Gizmodo, which is primarily a tech blog, attempted to condense tattoo history, from mummies to Miami Ink, in their blog post "How the Art of Tattoo Has Colored World History." In what seemed to be research primarily conducted on Wikipedia, the author ended up perpetuating many of the myths and misinformation that float around online. So I hit up true experts in the field of tattoo history to set the record straight: Dr. Matt Lodder, Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman, and Dr. Lars Krutak.
So, you can take a minute and read the Gizmodo article first. Or not.
I first asked Anna what she thought were some glaring mistakes in the post. Here's what she said:
ANNA: By the third sentence of this "article" I knew it was going to be a doozy. The problem with this statement, "That tradition continues today, just with a much smaller chance of infection" is a) it's incredibly melodramatic and b) it's just not true. Many (if not most?) traditional tattoo practitioners were acutely aware of the possibility of infection, one of the reasons why we perhaps see suspension mediums in traditional tattoo "ink" recipes like alium juice or even one of my favorite rare ones, human breastmilk, both of which contain natural antibacterial agents. Rest periods for people having undergone tattooing are common cross-culturally (presumably to let the body heal and lessen the chance of infection). And with the rise of "tattoo parties" and so much home-tattooing by amateurs untrained in proper safe practices with bloodborne pathogens, there is a huge risk of all sorts of infections in the contemporary era.
Re: the image of the "Pict" "tattoos": had the writer just done a tiny bit of searching re: this image, he might have realized this image is a fantasy and does not represent tattoos. Scholars are still not sure if the descriptions of body art on the Picts were tattoos or just body painting (leaning toward the latter), but they definitely were not 16th century French-inspired floral designs in multi-color (they were described as woad-like, which is blueish in color). The image is also not attributed to the source, and I'm guessing when the owner (Yale University) finds out it's been used without attribution, they will have it pulled. Here are some links to some of my posts on one of the other images from the same book (John White's equally fantastic Pict images), which mention fantasy and have more elucidation of some of these problems: Image 1 (below), Image 2, and Image 3.
Matt also noted the misinformation on Picts and cited "The Pictish Tattoo: Origins of a Myth" by Richard Dibon-Smith for reference.
As for the "These days, it's not just sailors and ruffians that get inked" line (and the whole paragraph really), read Matt's attack on tattoo cliches.
Above: Lars Krutak with one of the last tattooed Kalinga warriors Jaime Alos outside of Tabuk, Philippines.
I'm also grateful for the extensive critique of the article that Lars offered:
LARS: Otzi is not the oldest evidence as this article seems to purport. The oldest is a 7000-year-old male mummy of the Chinchorro culture of South America and this man wears a tattooed mustache on his upper-lip, so the earliest evidence is cosmetic. [Actually, the cited Smithsonian article had several glaring errors and I never cite it - period! - even though I work at the Smithsonian! Dr. Fletcher stated that Otzi is the oldest tattoo evidence, but she is no doubt incorrect and I like mythbusting this oft-stated "fact."]
Gizmodo: The Inuit, for example, have been tattooing themselves in the name of beauty and a peaceful afterlife since at least the 13th century.
LARS - The earliest evidence of tattooing in all of North America is a Palaeo-Eskimo ivory maskette from Devon Island, Nunavut, Canada whose face is completely covered with tattoos and it dates to -3500 BP. This object most likely represents a woman. So the practice is much older than the author presumes. For "beauty" is pretty much horseshit - see my comments below. Much circumpolar tattooing aimed to repel the advances of disease-bearing evil spirits and there were multiple forms of medicinal tattooing to relieve painful rheumatism (a la the Iceman), painful swellings, facial paralysis, and even to increase the production of a woman's breast milk.
Gizmodo: Similarly, in the the [sic] Cree tribe, men would often tattoo their entire bodies while the women would wear ornate designs running from mid-torso to pelvis as protective wards for a safe pregnancy.
LARS: I have never heard anything about safe pregnancies in relation to Cree tattoo, although I am aware of tattoos in other parts of North America to promote fertility or ensure that the first thing a newborn saw was a thing of beauty (eg, inner thigh tattoo, Inuit region). Indeed, Cree men (Plains Cree, Wood Cree) were tattooed on their torso, but only for war honors. These tattoos had to be earned so only successful warriors would have worn such tattoos. The author makes it sounds like every man had them, but this is simply not true.
It started off as something whispered at tattoo convention. Lyle Tuttle had something big to cross off his "bucket list": to tattoo in Antarctica, the only continent on this earth left where he hadn't plied his craft. When tattoo historian Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman learned of this, she cornered Lyle in the hotel bar of the convention one night and told him that it was her dream as well to visit Antarctica. After she "casually mentioned" that she could make this trip happen, Lyle took her up on her offer to organize the trip and be his personal assistant on that journey.
On January 21, 2014, the 82-year-old legend, who has been tattooing since 1949, became the first person to tattoo on all 7 continents. Anna offers more on that trip here, an excerpt of which is below:
After a long trip to the tip of South America, [Lyle Tuttle] and project assistant/tattoo historian Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman, flew across the Drake Passage on a 6-seat charter flight. Still plagued by after-effects from a bout of frostbite acquired while serving in the Marines in the Korean War, the trip posed a particular challenge for Mr. Tuttle. The two travelers spent a full day touring, seeing--among the many wonders of the icy southern world--glaciers, icebergs, penguins, seals, and whales--and experiencing what life is like for those who live in Antarctica for extended periods of time. Then, late at night, Mr. Tuttle set up his tattoo station in a scientist's guesthouse at the Russian Bellingshausen Station and tattooed his signature tattoo--his autograph--on Dr. Friedman's leg, later adding "ANTARCTICA 2014" when back in Punta Arenas, Chile.During the trip, Lyle also got two new tattoos himself, and as Anna writes, he delighted local tattooists with his unexpected visits to their studios.
When I asked Anna about the amazing stories she must have heard from Lyle on that trip, she said, "Stories....man, I'm still processing it all. 10 days of the two of us pretty much constantly together, combined with his loquaciousness, is A LOT of stories. To be honest, the stories I particularly loved were the non-tattoo ones--of his family and growing up, fighting in Korea, sailing on his Chinese junk."
She also said that the most memorable part of the trip was "traveling to these storied places that I have read about so often in the pages of explorer's narratives and journals. Staying in a hotel room overlooking the freaking Strait of Magellan, touring Tierra del Fuego, flying over Cape Horn and recognizing the shapes of the islands at the ends of South America from so many years as a map geek, and, of course, landing on Antarctica. The hike down a cliff face on the Drake Passage side of King George Island through permafrost, fields of weird lichens and mosses, and crazy awesome ice and craggy rocks to see elephant seals also ranks among the top three hikes I've ever taken and lingers in my memory."
Read more of Lyle and Anna's historic journey on her blog, where she'll also be posting more photos and video soon.
Editor's note: As I'm away on vacation now, we have the wonderful tattoo historian Anna Felicity Friedman back to guest blog. Her post has some invaluable info on important texts that you want to seek out for your own tattoo education.
RIP Donald Richie
By Anna Felicity Friedman
The news of Donald Richie's death on February 19 prompted me to dig out my copies of his works on Japanese tattooing and brought back a flood of memories of being a budding tattoo scholar back in the early 1990s, when library catalogs consisted of index cards organized in tiny drawers and the only real way to find out about then-obscure works on tattoo history and culture was via word of mouth (Ed Hardy, who was incredibly generous and supportive of my early tattoo history efforts, tipped me off to Richie's work as well as others').
It occurred to me that Needles and Sins readers might enjoy a round-up of some of these earlier works on Japanese tattooing--all but one of which are out of print today. You can find them in certain libraries (and a few via interlibrary loan), for purchase (albeit in limited quantities and often for a considerable price tag), or, in one case, online.
Sandi Fellman, The Japanese Tattoo (New York : Abbeville, 1986, 1987): In 1990, when I found a copy--on clearance--at the RISD bookstore of Fellman's incredible coffee-table book of photography of Japanese tattoos, I had just started getting tattooed and knew I would be sleeved (or more) someday. But these photos astounded me and still fuel tattoo desires today. The sleeve I commissioned in 1993 when I was just 21 years old was directly inspired by the images in this book. A photograph of a shishi tattoo by Horikin on his wife lingered in my memory until I had it inscribed in 2000 on one side of my torso--ten years of image persistence speaks volumes, I think, as to the power of the photographs in this book (as does how wrinkled and worn my copy is from incessantly paging through it). When I looked to find out how rare this book might be today, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the second edition is still in print! And for a very reasonable price (it's even Amazon prime eligible). So go buy it!
W. R. van Gulik, Irezumi: The Pattern of Dermatography in Japan (Leiden: Brill, 1982): Another of the books that Ed Hardy recommended to me in 1992, van Gulik's book impressed me with its incredible level of scholarship--it was perhaps the first volume I had read that made me realize tattoo history could be a serious academic pursuit, complete with nerdy footnotes and scouring of archives. Van Gulik's book introduced me to the phenomenally striking Ainu tattooing as well as the concept of a prehistoric tattoo history that might be recovered from incised figurines. I have absolutely no idea where the School of the Art Institute librarians found a copy of this for me to borrow via Interlibrary loan, given that the book was, and still is, fairly rare (with fewer than 100 copies listed in Worldcat today). I was excited to discover recently that the book is now available via Google Books!
Donald Richie and Ian Buruma, The Japanese Tattoo (New York: Weatherhill, 1980, 1982, 1989, 1991, 1995, 1996): This collaboration between Richie and Buruma features some incredible photographs of older Japanese tattoos, when the style was what I would call more of a folk-art and less of a fine-art aesthetic--not as polished, rougher, more raw. It also has some phenomenal photos of tattoos in progress and amazing candids. The foreword is by Horibun II who offered Richie and Buruma what appears to be then-unprecedented access to his studio and process. For those of you who read Japanese, the bibliography gives an impressive listing of earlier texts about Japanese tattooing to track down. The later 1989-1996 paperback reprints can be found secondhand fairly easily (and for a not-too-terrible price) via Amazon and Abebooks. But the hardcover version is worth seeking out for those of you with the funds to add it to your book collection (it also features a much more compelling cover design than the paperback).
Image above (cropped) from Tattoo History Daily. See full image and caption here.
This Thursday, forgo the flowers, candy hearts, and love poems, and spend your Valentine's Day with stories of "disfigurement, murder, and flayed skin (with a bit of cannibalism and sadism thrown in for good measure)" -- with red wine of course -- at Morbid Anatomy (8pm) in Brooklyn, NY for the Tragic Tattoo Tales: A Valentine's Day Lecture and Reading.
The illustrated lecture and reading is given by our favorite tattoo scholars Anna Felicity Friedman and Matt Lodder, who will offer up tattoo history tied to romance and the macabre. Here's more on the talk from Morbid Anatomy:
Through illustrated slide lectures, Drs. Friedman and Lodder will present comparative historical material to provide context and deeper understanding and to separate fact from fiction. Learn about wide ranging tattoo topics in both Western and non-Western cultures and have questions answered that the stories raise. Did people really preserve tattooed skin? What were people reading about tattoos in the early twentieth century? Were Maori really tattooed head to foot? What were the connections between Ukiyo-e and Japanese tattooing in the Edo period?Anna also told the Brooklyn Daily: "There's some short stories about tattooing and romance, which are kind of creepy and weird. They always end with death, or some macabre consequence like being splashed with acid, or having the tattoo flayed off the skin."
Sounds like an average Thursday night for Brian & I, so we'll be there. I hope to see y'all as well. It's only $5 for admission, so you can bring a few dates to Tragic Tattoo Tales.
Also, check out Anna's irreverent Valentine's Day mini-series on Tattoo History Daily (which includes the images in this post). It's not related to the lecture content, necessarily, but similarly cynical and awesome.
A pair of lovers, part of a trio posted on Tattoo History Daily. From Riecke, 1925.
In September, we posted on the L.A. Skin & Ink exhibit, which is currently on view at the The Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles until January 6, 2013. We won't be able to make it to the West Coast before its closing, and so we're grateful to Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman, who offers this insightful review of the exhibition -- and a bit of a tattoo history lesson. The value of her expertise here is not limited to her thoughts on this particular show but also makes an excellent guide for those seeking to organize their own tattoo exhibitions. For more from Anna, check her Tattoo History Daily blog.
By Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman
As a tattoo-history scholar and curator, I'm always excited for the opportunity to see new exhibits that highlight the art form I love so much. My recent Thanksgiving trip to Los Angeles gave me the opportunity to stop by the LA Skin & Ink show at the Craft and Folk Art Museum. From the press release, I was expecting an in-depth investigation that "explores the unique role of Los Angeles in the Tattoo Renaissance over the last 60 years.
Sadly, the exhibit did not fulfill my expectations. Instead it presented a curatorially confused mishmash of flash, photographs, and artwork. Was this a tattoo history show? A show of fine art by tattoo artists? A show of art somehow generally related to tattooing? Upon rereading the press release post-visit, I probably should have tempered my enthusiasm in advance--it trots out many of the usual myths about tattooing pre-Renaissance being the purview of sailors and criminals (not to mention the typographical errors, which usually predict a general lack of attention to detail or consistency).
From my first steps into the exhibit, a disconnect between what the museum wanted the exhibit to be and what the exhibit ended up being became immediately clear. The wall text promises an exhibit about LA tattooers who "have been instrumental in researching and refining the distinct styles of Japanese, Tribal, and Black and Grey tattooing." It was a shock to turn around and then see, situated across from the wall text, essentially, an installation art piece rooted loosely in old-school Americana (described in the exhibit label as a "site-specific installation" by Lucky Bastard, Buzzy Jenkins, and Lincoln Jenkins). A wall filled with sheets of mid-20th-century flash hovered above an artist's evocation of a "historic" tattoo "station."
After a video monitor screening interviews with LA tattoo artists and collectors, the exhibit then transitioned into a brief tattoo-technology section. The press-release promised "tattoo equipment" which would make one assume there would be a sizeable selection. Two power supplies, two machines, and a single photograph of a machine, with a short 3-paragraph text about "How It Works" didn't really do any justice to an understanding of this aspect of tattooing nor was any unique LA angle with respect to tattoo technology obvious.
The next section started the confused mix of work that would characterize the rest of the show. Under the heading "American Traditional," classic old-school artists Bert Grimm and Bob Shaw shared a wall with Cliff Raven's work--much of it from his Chicago days, not his California ones. Across from them, tagged as "Japanese," hung Sailor Jerry flash and some contemporary fine-art pieces by Ed Hardy. At the end of the room a selection of "Tribal" tattooing highlighted Leo Zulueta's blackwork, which along with one of the pieces representing Zulu's work around the corner, appeared to be the only "tribal" included in the show.
Especially problematic for me in this gallery, I struggled to grasp why Sailor Jerry, who as far as I know did not work in LA, had been included in the show (and given such a large and prominent section). Also, none of the Hardy pieces were either from his LA days (the pieces were dated 1999-2007) nor particularly tattoo related (all of Hardy's fine-art work aesthetically draws at least a bit from his many years as a tattooer, but many, many other pieces would have been better choices for this exhibit--I would have loved to have seen in person some of the Bert-Grimm-inspired flash Hardy drew as a kid living in Orange County reproduced in "Tattooing the Invisible Man."
There's a new tattoo blog out that I'm loving: Tattoo History Daily, which is on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram. The daily dose of tattoo history goodness is brought to you by interdisciplinary scholar Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman.
The images are from archival research and/or her personal collection, and are fantastically curated, like this one above: "Tattoos as part of the US Army's 1889 plan to help id deserters, from Alden's 1896 article in The American Anthropologist." Or the image below, a cover to a 1957 pulp fiction/science fiction novella from her archive.
While the blog is just getting started, there's plenty to browse and enjoy. Check it!