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.
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.