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.
From TheAppendix.net: "Europeans and indigenous Americans being judged at the court of Nature for modifying their bodies, from the frontispiece to John Bulwer's Anthropometamorphosis (London, 1656). Wikimedia Commons."
A perfect follow-up to yesterday's post of a 1902 newspaper feature on tattoos is another wonderful history article, published yesterday in The Appendix, entitled: Indelible Ink: The Deep History of Tattoo Removal. Mairin Odle, a PhD candidate in Atlantic History at NYU, cites texts, from as old as a sixth-century encyclopedia of medicine, that discuss ancient tattoo removal procedures; she also offers stories of frustration over the difficulty in removing permanent markings -- the same frustration people talk of today.
Here's a bit from Odle's text:
By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, documentation of tattoo removal was often found in accounts of Europeans in contact with cultures overseas--particularly, although not exclusively, societies in the New World. The failed effort to remove the English pirate's facial tattoo was not the only attempt at such a procedure in the early modern Atlantic world. A number of French, Spanish, English, and Native American sources suggest that people of the period could regret their permanent body modifications just as much as modern people do.As much as I am a cheerleader for the tattoo community, I think Odle is absolutely correct that the "regret" issue has not really been explored fully when discussing tattoo culture -- beyond the silly tabloid articles. I think this history of tattoo removal article is a great start.
Read more of the article here.
[Thank you, Lindy Hazel LaDue, for the link!]
For near-daily gems of tattoo history, The Vanishing Tattoo's Facebook Page is a great source. Two days ago, they posted this incredible gem: a 1902 NY Tribune article entitled A Tattooing"Artist." A must-read piece.
The article discusses tattooing as an art form, how "real silk-stocking society women" were tattooed, tattoo trends at the time, and even how tattooers practiced on children. Here's a taste from the article:
When schools on the East Side opened a few weeks ago, the teachers were astonished at the number of tattooed youngsters who appeared for beginning their schooling. Some of them were as variously decorated as the saltiest of seaman, and the boys who had escaped the needle were so envious that they only wanted an opportunity to join the ranks of the "skin pictures" as the tattooed boys were called.There are also salty scenes from inside the shop of Elmer E. Glitchell aka "Electric" Elmer, the "Wonder Tattooer," of Chatham Square:
The young man bared his arm and the operation began. The "professor" washed the skin with antiseptic and shaved away the hairs. He rubbed a little cocaine into the skin and then stenciled the design. He turned the current into his electric outline machine, and at the rate of a thousand punctures a minute traced the outline. The patient winced once or twice at first, but soon got used to the pricking sensation, and made no complaint. There was little or no sign of blood. The "professor" held out his arm that the patient might select the colors he desired, and the arm made a perfect color sheet. Blue, red and green were the colors that appealed to the merchant and the outline was soon completed with a brush...Read more from the American Newspaper Repository.
While we've learned a great deal about the stellar artists featured in the Vice TV series Tattoo Age, the latest video, Part 2 of the Freddy Corbin profile, goes even further and offers a modern tattoo history lesson as Freddy muses on his start in tattooing over 27 years ago and the greats who have guided him.
Weaving old photos and archival video from Michael O. Stearns' tattoo documentaries from the 90s, the episode charts Freedy's life from his first tattoo at Lyle Tuttle's old San Francisco studio (which he paid for with a $75 tax return), to how he got Erno Szabady to give him his first shot, to that fateful call at 9am when Ed Hardy asked him to come work at his Realistic Tattoo studio. Along the way, Freddy tells stories about how he learned history from Sunny Tufts, how Henry Goldfield was a great mentor artistically and technically, and how he was inspired working alongside Dan Higgs and Greg Kulz.
Once again, another must see.
If you missed Part 1, you can find it here. See Freddy's work on TempleTattoo.com.
Tattoo Age has a contest where you can win this Dan Santoro print. Details on Twitter.
The wondrous life of sailor, sideshow attraction, tattooer and craftsman Armund Dietzel is further explored in Volume 2 of These Old Blue Arms: The Life & Work of Amund Dietzel by Jon Reiter of Solid State Tattoo in Milwaukee. I highly recommended Volume I last year, and this new hardcover surpasses it.
Volume II does not simply take over from where the story of Dietzel's life left off in the first, but in fact, revisits some of Dietzel's early history so that the timeline of his life is fully contained in this one book. Of course, for the full colorful picture, both volumes are essential reading for tattoo history lovers.
Like the first, Dietzel's story is woven through rare images of his tattoo flash as well as photographs documenting his art and personal life. It begins with a foreword by Fred Stonehouse who recalls that magic moment when he came across Dietzel's Milwaukee shop as a child in the 60s. But when he returned as a teenager, the shop was no longer there, only a ghost town. This foreshadows the final chapter "Mop-Up" about Dietzel's last days tattooing when he sold his shop to his friend Gib "Tats" Thomas in 1964 but stayed on and kept working until 1967, the year when tattooing was banned in Milwaukee. "Amund defiantly tattooed through the very last day his profession was legal in the City of Milwaukee, and then retired." He died in 1974 just before his 83rd birthday.
These Old Blue Arms is a great testament to his adventures, best encapsulated at the beginning of Chapter 1:
Amund Dietzel had the life that many of us would have wished to have. If one could imagine a journey that would provide stories enough to fill every lag in conversation that might occur henceforth to the end of one's life, Amund Dietzel has such a life. It has everything one could ask for -- the sea, the sky, the shipwreck, and the salvation. It has the carnival (which in itself is enough for most people), travel and art. It has true love, it has family, hard work, and finally, security on one's own terms.Throughout the book, there are anecdotes that touch upon all these facets of Dietzel's life. For example, Reiter particularly notes that if you're looking to trace the origins of the iconic crawling panther design or the playful skunk "Little Stinker," you should begin with Dietzel flash. In the "Tattooed for Exhibition" chapter, wonderful quotes from a 1928 article in The Milwaukee Journal accompany photos of the artist's more extensively tattooed clientele. In one quote, it is noted that it was tradition that tattooists be "covered" to show real samples of designs, color and good work. Dietzel did indeed work on many of his tattoo brethren in addition to hoards of servicemen in his 60+ years tattooing. [As stated in the "Art of War" chapter: "During the First World War, Amund's studio tattooed over 200 members of the 32nd Infantry Division of the Army National Guard."]
One of my favorite chapters is "The Anatomy of a Tattooed Man," which highlights Dietzel's own tattoos and how he chose to "put himself on display." What's especially cool is the juxtaposition of his flash art with photos of his own tattoo work in the background, as shown above.
A sure favorite for those with a passion for tattoo machines is the "Tools of the Trade" chapter as it takes a close look at Dietzel's signature tattoo machines, the inspiration behind them and some technical discussion on the builds.
In fact, every chapter is filled with historical tattoo goodness that will excite artists and collectors a like. You can purchase the 215-page hardcover online from Solid State Publishing for $50 (plus shipping).
Tattoo lore spoken in gritty detail and tone. The Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants By Walter Moskowitz is a gift that this Bowery Boy left us before his passing. Walter's son Doug recorded these stories in the last year of his father's life so that they may live on. And now they are being shared in a two audio CD set (more than 2 1/2 hours of tattoo tales) accompanied by a 24-page color booklet with photos and articles. It is all richly designed, with cover art by CIV, into a perfect collector's piece.
You can buy the collection from the Moskowitz family on Scabmerchant.com or but it on Amazon.com.
The stories are funny, educational, sad and triumphant. As Doug says, "You will not only get to hear great tattoo stories but you will also get a nice perspective of who my dad was as a person; the era he, his father, and brother tattooed in; and how that related to what he did."
The audio documentary also includes guest commentators, and I'm honored to be one of them. As I wrote in my memorial to Walter in 2007 (originally published on my old site Needled.com), I was pretty nervous when I met him. What would I say to "one of the last links to New York's tattoo heritage" as per Michael McCabe's New York City Tattoo: The Oral History of an Urban Art. But Walter Moskowitz was warm and welcoming and instantly made you feel at ease -- the perfect tattooer trait.
Here's more from that memorial:
He was also a gifted story teller. Listening to him, transports you to the 50s, NYC's Lower East Side.
His father, Willy Moskowitz, emigrated from Russia and opened up a barbershop. He soon learned that he could support his family better through tattoos than cutting hair, so he had his friend Charlie Wagner, another legend, teach him the craft. Along with tattooing came the drunken shop brawls between (and with) rowdy clients, police harassment, and the general hustle to make a living during and after the Depression. Not an easy life, but a good trade.
Willy Moskowitz passed down the trade to Walter and his brother
According to the article "The Kosher Tattoo Kings," Walter learned to tattoo at night after spending the day studying the Torah and Talmud at a Brooklyn yeshiva. The article quotes Walter as saying "It has been a very interesting life. I came in contact with every type of personality, from the highest to the lowest -- and sometimes the highest was the lowest."
An interesting life is a humble understatement. Many of us tattoo history buffs pass around stories of the Bowery Boys with a bit of awe. McCabe says it best: "Young tattoo artists are always asking me about the Moskowitzes. The mythology of these guys is like that of the Bowery in the 1940s and 50s -- big, bad and bold."
I love that mythology, the stories. But I'm also thankful that I got to meet Walter in person, feel his strong but friendly handshake, and thank him for the history lesson.
For fans of sideshow, here's a video look back at Coney Island's beautiful freaks, dancing girls and even a bit of tattoo history (around the 4:10 mark). Today's resident performers continue traditional sideshow arts, like sword swallowing, with a contemporary edge, and also attract guest performers like our fave, The Lizardman.
[The video is part of the Prelinger Archive, which I highly recommend to artists looking for public domain films and clips.]
Via the fabulous Pat Sullivan.
I'll begin simply by saying that These Old Blue Arms: The Life & Work of Amund Dietzel is a bookshelf mandate for lovers of tattoo art and culture. Written by Jon Reiter of Solid State Tattoo in Milwaukee, it not only captures a legend but the richness of tattoo Americana.
Last month, Patrick posted a preview of the book, and over vacation, I made it my essential reading -- although not beach reading as I didn't want to risk damaging the 200-page hardcover. While I devoured the entire book in just a few hours, its resonance is long lasting. It is in one volume a book of history, artistic reference, and tattoo lore as well as a meticulously researched biography.
As Fred Stonehouse says in the Foreword, Jon Reiter has made it his mission to "clarify much of the shadowy information" surrounding Dietzel. Reiter cites the Norwegian National Archives to early US newspapers to direct quotes from Dietzel's grandson to paint a picture of a man deemed "one of the last true gentleman tattooers."
The book begins with a short introduction to Dietzel's family life, illustrated by photos from the late 1800s and beyond. We learn that he went to sea at the age of 14 and got his first tattoo--an anchor on his hand--when he docked in Southern Wales in 1907. It was aboard the Augusta later that year when he started his 60+year tattoo career with "six needles bound with cotton and set in a block of wood."
More than tattoo facts, the book tells stories of alleged ship wrecks, war time tattoo culture, and carny life--where Dietzel spent a good portion of his career tattooing and as a "Tattooed Man" sideshow performer. It also shows Dietzel as an artist constantly seeking to refine his craft, noting that he took art classes at Yale and elsewhere at various times in his life. His artistry is ever-present in the hand-painted flash spreads--these pages alone are worth buying the book. [Reiter also gives some background on the root of the word flash, which is fantastic.]
A cast of other characters populate the book like William Grimshaw, Thomas Riley, Cliff Raven, Phil Sparrow, Gib "Tatts" Thomas, and Kenneth "Shaky Jake" Jacobs--a villain who tries to put others out of business through badmouthing and even setting up crooked cops outside of competitors' shops to steer away would-be clients. These great stories never detract from Dietzel's work, which attracted tattoo collectors from all over the world to his Milwaukee studios even before tattoo magazines, the Internet and general acceptance of the art, as Reiter notes.
Dietzel retired in 1967 when Milwaukee banned tattooing. He and Tatts, at the ages of 75 and 65, put up a fight at City Council meetings, but they were largely alone in doing so. In 1974, Dietzel died of leukemia, three weeks before his 83rd birthday. His life is illuminated and honored in this excellent book.
You can order it here for $50 plus shipping.
A second installment is in the works and I'll have more on that as it progresses.
Guest Blog by Dr. Matt Lodder *
As an opening line for an article in a popular newspaper about tattoos, the suggestion that "tattoos are not just for sailors anymore" is a familiar one. We saw it last month in an article in The Guardian called "The Rise and Rise of the Tattoo", whose subheading read "Just why has the art form of sailors, bikers and assorted deviants become mainstream?".
And just last week, an article in the Astbury Park Press declared that although "Traditionally viewed by Americans as the crude art of roughnecks or drunken sailors, tattooing has turned a corner, moving toward acceptance as legitimate art".
Indeed, it often feels as if the same sentiment graces every article about tattooing in the mainstream press: Tattooing, we've been told again and again recently, is coming of age - finally coming out of the murky shadows of the deviant underworld to leave its mark on the most well-heeled. Tattoos are now to be seen on catwalks, on trading floors and around the chicest tables.
The hacks who churn out these stories might be surprised to learn, then, that the popular media has been reporting the arrival of tattooing in high society for nearly one hundred years.
In his 1933 book, "Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art", Albert Parry reports that the onset of the Great Depression hit tattooists hard, as their usual clients - lawyers and bankers - were hard-up, unable to afford the highest rates for large tattoos. An even earlier article, from Tatler Magazine (the periodical of the British upper classes) in 1905, reports:
"The tattoing [sic] craze which first broke out in America has now come to this country, where its chief exponent is Mr. Alfred South of Cockspur Street. During his career Mr. South has operated on upwards of 15,000 persons, including about 900 English women, the designs in a great number of cases being of a most peculiar description. There are some instances where ladies have had the inscriptions on their wedding rings tattooed on their fingers beneath the ring. Ladies who like to keep pace with the times may be adorned with the illustrations of motor cars." (26th November 1905, p. 311)
There's simply no truth to the common tale that tattooing has always and forever been the domain of the seedy, the deviant and the marginalised in the West, though the tale is a persistent one. It pervades even the few serious academic histories of tattooing in the West, all of whom who almost universally agree that prior to about 1965, tattooing was less of an art form than some kind of ritual practiced by easily-identifiable groups of the underclass. The 1970s onwards are referred to in these texts as "The Tattoo Renaissance", as if the period before had been a dark age.
Recently, a colleague of mine passed me a fantastic article she stumbled across in the course of some archival research. Titled "Modern Fashions in Tattooing", it's from Vanity Fair, dated January 1926 (pp 43, 110). In its opening paragraph, the author confidently exclaims the; very same sentiment we saw only last month in The Guardian:
"Tattooing has passed from the savage to the sailor, from the sailor to the landsman. It has since percolated through the entire social stratum; tattooing has received its credentials, and may now be found beneath many a tailored shirt."
Even by 1926, magazines were announcing to their readers that tattoos were now popular amongst people like them. And these were not small flash designs either - the article reports large chest pieces, backpieces and designs artistically rendered to the desires of each individual client. It talks about re-works and cover-ups, and tattooing kings and queens. The article even mentions an old-salt tattoo artist called Professor Sharkey, bemoaning the good old days when tattooing was "art for art's sake" and not some modern fad. "It's too bad to have to tattoo diving-girls and Venus rising from the sea when you have it in you to do things like these," he says, gesturing at his collection of rare prints.
Tattooists, it seems, like tabloid journalists, have always stuck to the script.
* Dr Matt Lodder recently completed his PhD thesis in art history at the University of Reading. His research applies art-historical and art-theoretical methodologies to tattooing and other forms of body art. For more about his research, click here. Matt is on Twitter and can be contacted directly via mattlodder at hotmail dotcom.
Samuel M. Steward, PhD was an English professor, a writer of esteemed literary works and gay porn. He was also "a furtive but exuberant erotic adventurer." [Put this on my own tombstone please].
Sam Steward was also "Phil Sparrow," a tattoo artist for 18 years who chronicled these years in a book that should be on every tattoo lover's shelves: "Bad Boys & Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo with Gangs, Sailors, and Street-Corner Punks."
As Sam notes in the intro, the book was autobiographical, a journal of his tattoo life with "no intention to retell old stories, to perpetuate myths or errors, to upgrade the 'art' of tattooing, nor to make more dense the fog of the mystique around it."
It does talk about the characters he tattooed, the politics between tattooers, and sex. Lots of it. He says, "...in one way or another, more than three quarters of the tattoos applied were put on because of some aspect of sexual motivation." No wonder sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey took such an interest in it.
Now, a biography of Steward, "Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist & Sexual Renegade," will be released August 17th, which looks even deeper at the man's life as a "sex historian," with stories culled from 80 boxes of letters, drawings, sexual paraphernalia, even pubic hair from Rudolph Valentino (with whom he had an affair).
The book is by biographer Justin Spring, whom the NY Times says had "no idea what this sexual outlaw and little-known literary figure had left behind after his death in 1993" when Spring finally tracked down the executor of Steward's estate. The NY Times adds:
You can pre-order the Secret Historian on Amazon for $20.25 (saving $12).
I was so excited to see the vintage footage of tattoo culture from the 1930s and 50s via Broken's super-awesome YouTube page, and thought I'd share with y'all a few faves before we head into the weekend. The videos are from film found in the British Pathe' archives, which is worth checking out beyond those of tattoo history. [Keep in mind that if you do a search for "tattoo" most will be of the military parade kind]:
The first video below is of Jessie Knight, one of the UK's first female tattoo artists whose career spanned from the early 20s to 1963. You can read more about her here.
This one that follows shows legendary tattooist George Burchett, whose Memoirs of a Tattooist published in 1958 detailed his experiences tattooing (especially on royalty) from the late 1800s. As the book is out of print, I had to search hard for a copy but you can find used ones online (most for $200+). Here is George tattooing permanent make-up as well as a decorative tattoo on a "society lady."
Finally, check this footage from the old Bristol Tattoo Club [which we've written about here]:
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.
Inked Magazine was the first tattoo magazine for black skin. It had a short run of two issues, when Easy Riders Publications (later known as Paisano Publications) decided to stop the magazine for reasons unknown.
Don't get the 1999 Inked Magazine confused with the glitzy, glossy 2009 Inked -- they are two completely different beasts. Today's Inked is a progressive publication that pays homage to all of tattoo culture, unlike others in the industry.
Before this review goes any farther I would like to give special thanks to Sandra at Paisano Publications for sending me their last two copies of this groundbreaking magazine.
I remember buying Inked when it first hit the newsstands; boy, was I psyched. Finally a magazine about something I could relate to: black skin. I was even blown away by the cover. How did they get all that color into that black chick's skin, was the first thing on my mind.
In 1999, I had been collecting tattoo magazines for about 6 years and had just received my first tattoo from Pedro Baluga (who happened to be a guest editor for the premier issue). I was hungry for anything with information on tattooing black skin. The majority of magazines were a disappointment to me -- there was rarely a black person in any of them, and I just wanted to see an example of what was possible on my own complexion. I also just wanted a tattoo magazine to discuss something I could relate to: being a black kid from the inner city.
Inked gave me what I was looking for: reviews of black bands, articles on African body modification rituals, articles on black tattooists. But all good things must come to an end. When I asked the publishers why they stopped after only two issues, no one knew.
I can only guess that 1999 just was not the time for a magazine like this. Now there are so many more examples of black folks with extensive tattoo coverage. Then, less so. Then, I was looking at 2pac as being "tatted", now he would just be a dabbler.
Easy Riders Publications should be commended for even putting this magazine out at the time. It also published Tattoo, Tattoo Flash, Easy Rider, Biker, Savage, V-Twin and In the Wind, and considering most of these titles were geared largely towards biker readership, creating a mag about tattooed black skin was a progressive and gutsy move.