Skin Deep - a history of tattooing has just opened at the National Maritime Museum. Find out all you need to know about carving, slinging ink and pounding skin with our web guide. (Article)
1. The National Maritime Museum has a new exhibition opening today called Skin Deep - a history of tattooing, which traces the development and diversity of tattooing in Britain over the past 200 years.
2. Sailors were, of course, the first group in British society to ink their skins, after Captain Cook’s voyage on the HMS Endeavour through the Pacific Islands in 1768 brought them in contact with often heavily tattooed islanders. The word tattoo also has its origins from this time: the Hawaiian, and Polynesian, word for tattoo being kakau, or tatau.
3. Tattooing started to take off in Britain in the late 1800s. It gained a royal sanction in 1862 when the Prince of Wales, in a visit to the Holy Land, had the Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his arm. Then, around 1870, DW Purdy opened a tattooing shop in north London, thought to be the first professional studio in Great Britain.
4. In 1891, Samuel O’Reilly invented the first tattoo machine, based on a piece of equipment originally designed by Thomas Edison for engraving hard surfaces. Ouch. But, of course, that took the hard graft out of the craft and, by 1900, it was estimated that 90% of the United States Navy were tattooed.
5. These days, though, it is not only bluejackets who like carving, slinging ink and pounding skin. Tattoos are everywhere, from your local bank clerk to your little sister - even your mum.
6. An eye-watering number of celebrities have tattoos. During the filming of the Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, the nine actors who formed the Fellowship of the Ring all got an Elvish tattoo, meaning “the Nine”.
7. For many people, tattoos are a statement of highly personal significance and meaning. Prisoners’ tattoos can read like books, telling the history of their past convictions, types of offence and level of authority within prison. They also use ink to commemorate their life outside prison walls, marking their bodies with the names of their loved ones and family members.
8. Having your lover’s name indelibly marked on your skin can have its problems. One of Pamela Anderson’s tattoos used to say Tommy, after her then-husband Tommy Lee, but had to be changed to Mommy after their break-up. According to Pammy, “Tattoos are like stories - they’re symbolic of the important moments in your life.” Presumably she has since changed her mind after reports that she contracted hepatitis C when she shared a tattoo needle with Mr Lee. And our very own David Beckham is famous for his body art: along with a pair of angel wings across his shoulder blades, he has his son’s name, Brooklyn, writ large across his lower back. Another tattoo, intended to spell out his wife’s name on his arm in Hindi, was said to be misspelt, reading “Vihctoria” instead of “Victoria”. A spokesperson for Mr Beckham denied the mistake, saying: “The tattoo has been checked by a Hindu expert.”
9. Many celebrities however, wary of forever staining their glowing hides, adorn themselves instead with temporary tattoos, or the henna-based mehndi tattoos that have been used for thousands of years in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to decorate the hands and feet for weddings and other celebrations.
10. This seems sensible: after all a tattoo is forever, and it is estimated that more than 50% of people who get a tattoo later regret it. And removal of tattoos can often leave scars and skin discolouration - which means that unless you have a very good reason, don’t give a brass monkey, or are three sheets to the wind and incapable of rational thought, it might be wise to think before you ink.
2 notes ♥ December 18th at 9:46 pm
Stamping out the persistent myths and misconceptions about tattoos. (Article)
0 notes ♥ December 16th at 4:35 pm
I’m an academic art historian specialising in the history of tattooing as an artistic practice, and so I was delighted to read Jonathan Jones’s article in the Guardian last weekend, in which the august and erudite art critic took time out from covering old master exhibitions in order to cast his eye over the work on display at the London Tattoo Convention down at Tobacco Dock in Wapping. It’s all too rare that anyone, let alone the mainstream media, take this old, proud practice seriously in artistic terms.
I was somewhat less delighted, though, to read some of the rather blunt comments which the article spurred. Whenever an article about tattooing appears, the same few comments seem to crop up. They are, for the most part, founded on an unsophisticated conception of the history, culture and practice of tattooing in the west. I want to tackle some of these myths head on. Misconceptions are tenacious things – some of them are over 100 years old!
Myth: Tattoos were confined to sailors, bikers, criminals and degenerates until only very recently
Truth: Vanity Fair reported in January 1926 that:
“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.”
By the time of the Great Depression in America, anthropologist Albert Parry was reporting that top tattooists’ best clients – lawyers, bankers and doctors – could no longer afford to get work, leaving tattooists forced to shout for work outside their shops like market traders! Even before then, tattooing had been all the rage in Victorian London, with finely ornamented tattoo studios at rarefied addresses like Jermyn Street playing host to society girls and wealthy aristocrats.
Most of the European royals of the late 19th century were tattooed, inspired by the fashionable Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. It’s rumoured that Winston Churchill was tattooed, too, and his mother certainly was.
Myth: ‘You’ll never get a real job’, and ‘tattoos are associated only with those in unskilled professions’
Truth: While it is of course true that having tattoos, particularly visible ones, may well impede your chances of employment in certain careers, it is certainly not the case that being tattooed is a sure impediment to even blue-chip careers. This was as true in the 1930s as it is today: there are heavily tattooed scientists at Nasa and heavily tattooed lawyers. There are heavily tattooed heart surgeons and heavily tattooed academics, of which I am but one. There are even heavily tattooed media moguls (James Murdoch is tattooed) – though perhaps calling that a “real job” is pushing the definition too far.
Myth: There is a link between being tattooed and being of low intelligence, or even of mental impairment
Truth: Often, this myth becomes somewhat self-defeatingly circular – having a tattoo is taken as a de facto sign of mental issues. There is no good evidence between tattooing and low (or even high) intelligence among the general population. Studies among specific populations – usually prisoners – have reported variously that tattooed inmates are both of higher and of lower intelligence than non-tattooed controls.
Certain mental health conditions may manifest themselves in a desire to self-mutilate (which may include tattooing), but there’s no demonstrable link between tattoos and mental health issues in general. This is likely even less true when you consider the work Jonathan encountered at the convention, acquired over years of sittings and requiring considerable investment.
Myth: Tattoos will look awful when you’re 80, and you’ll regret them when you’re older
Truth: Harris polls taken in America in 2003 and 2008 found that a steady 84% of people with tattoos did not regret them. Of those who did regret, most rued that they had gotten a tattoo too young, with many also stating that their tattoo was poorly executed, or that they picked the wrong design.
This strikes me not as an admonishment of tattooing in general, but of hastily acquired, impulsive tattoos done by unskilled artists. The myth that tattoos will look “green” or “faded” once the wearer reaches the autumn of their lives comes from the fact that tattoos on older people today were done decades ago, when inks, machines, needles and healing technologies were all vastly inferior to those we have today.
Fluid dynamics researcher Ian Eames did design a mathematical model predicting the loss of smaller details over the course of about 10-15 years, though noted that the likely divergence of a properly executed tattoo was “millimetres”.
It comes down to this, in my opinion: tattooing is fundamentally an art form like any other. It’s basically pictures on a surface. Some of it is wonderful, timeless, well-executed, interesting, affective and beautiful. Some of it is poor, shoddy, badly done, ill-conceived and, to my eyes, ugly. Some artists and some collectors are crazier than others, a story common among the practitioners and patrons of all the fine arts.
I just wish we could finally move discussions about tattoos on to these aesthetic, artistic questions rather than resorting to counterfactual and ill-informed assertions about the social status, mental health or criminal intentions of the tattooed.
Tattoos: Eyecatching – but are they art? (Article)
A blue and red flowering, sinuous, inky design written permanently into the skin of bare legs may be eye-catching – but is it art? Amy Savage thinks so. She explains how she got the tattoos on the backs of her legs from Xam, a noted tattoo artist who works at London’s Exmouth Market. She and companion Eddie Boxell, who has equally rich and beautiful tattoos covering most of his left arm, “collect” their tattoos from noted practitioners: “It’s an art thing, a collecting thing,” says Boxell.
They are early arrivals among the 20,000 or more visitors expected to attend this weekend’s International London Tattoo Convention at Tobacco Dock in Wapping. The expansive halls of this converted warehouse have become a fantasy realm of tattoo parlours, tattoo museums and supply stores, with alternative fashion boutiques, a rockabilly club and performance stages to entertain the decorated multitudes when they tire of photographing and praising one another’s illuminated flesh.
It is a skin thing, you notice, as more and more people with ever-more impressive markings flow into Tobacco Dock. You find yourself ignoring clothes and looking at an inky foot, a spider-web neck, a dragon shoulder. The decorations shine up skin, make it different and mysterious. They lead your eyes and hold your gaze. A Japanese geisha portrayed on someone’s arm; a woman going by with elegant tattoos all over her arms and on her legs, under her tights.
“People who are into tattoos know that it’s an art,” emphasises Savage. She is a tattooist herself, and is here to shop for equipment as well as survey the scene. She and Boxell both got their first tattoos when they were below the legal age of 18. They were 16 and 14 respectively, so they have a lifelong love affair with emblazonment. But what they both admit began as “rebellion” has matured into aesthetic wonder and appreciation.
They are participants in a cultural wave as huge as the Pacific surf, the islands from which the word “tattoo” originated. Chiara and Fabio are part of the same movement or fashion or compulsion: they have come from Italy especially for the convention, parading faces completely covered in phantasmagoric designs finished off with piercings. At its extreme, tattooing might seem a radical subculture that defines your whole existence, but the growing popularity of tattooing belies any such assumption.
Chances are that you, a family member or a friend has tattoos. Once associated with sailors, gang members, or circus performers, these markings are now a mainstream cultural force. If you don’t have tattoos close to home, you surely see plenty of people around who sport the kinds of spectacular, high-quality inkings that are walking around this convention floor. Sally Feldt, editor of Total Tattoo magazine, has seen the change happen. She got her first tattoo 30 years ago and has had a ringside seat at the cultural explosion. “It’s definitely more socially acceptable, more creative. It encompasses every age now, every walk of life.” It is not only young people who are taking the plunge, she stresses: “I know people in their 60s getting their first tattoo.”
Feldt admits there are no official figures on the growth or scale of tattooing. “Guesstimates vary: between 20 to 30% of the adult British population now have a tattoo.” That figure takes it well outside the limits of a subculture and into the mainstream. One proof of this success is her glossy magazine that sells in Smiths and at supermarkets. In the past five years the magazine has gone on sale at Morrisons and Asda, evidence that a once-rarefied passion is approaching the norm.
But again – is it art, as visitors to the London convention claim?
The answer is a flaming dragon of a yes. Not only is this an art, it is one of humanity’s most ancient arts. The once-salty docksides of Wapping provide a historically resonant place to stage this festival, for it was sailors who were known for their tattoos in the 18th and 19th centuries. The European “discovery” of tattooing dates from Captain Cook’s exploration of the Pacific in the 18th century. Cook took artists and scientists on his voyages, and on the islands in the Pacific they encountered peoples for whom it was habitual and ritualistically important to decorate the body using a bone needle to force natural dye deep into the skin.
Modern tattooing, which is being done all around me at the convention by parlours offering state-of-the-art markings, is just a more hygienic (hopefully) and technological version of this ancient method. Tattooing flourished in the inhabited Pacific islands, yet each practised a different style: Maoris combined tattooing with facial scarification, Marquesas islanders wore full-body tattoos, Samoans preferred them on buttocks and thighs. The word for this art was “tatau”.
For the first European visitors, these islands, above all Tahiti, seemed paradisiacal dreamlands of free love and unashamed physical beauty. In 1789 the crew of the Royal Navy ship HMS Bounty, seduced by the alternative society they saw among the islanders of the south seas, mutinied against the formidable Captain Bligh. As an expression of their radical choice to stay in the Pacific and reject their Britishness, they got tattoos. Since then, tattooing has become a nautical stereotype, then the stuff of 1950s fairground subculture, and now a mainstream body art celebrated in picture books and conventions.
In fact, the historical curiosity of today’s tattoo enthusiasts leads them to look far earlier than the Pacific encounters of Cook and Bligh. At the convention, Japanese tattooing is on offer – the origins of tattooing in Japan go back into prehistory. At a tattoo museum tucked in among the stalls, it is stressed that some form of tattooing is universal among ancient peoples, including the blue woad-covered Britons described by ancient Roman historians. It was also customary in Rome to tattoo slaves.
Is the rise of tattoo, then, a return to our roots, a modern tribalism? The trouble with such catch-all theories is the self-consciousness of tattoo enthusiasts about their art. There are “tribal” tattooists here, but that is just one genre. Savage, for instance, says she tattoos in a “neo-traditional” style, specialising in figures such as Gypsies that she renders in a convincing, precise manner.
Entranced as I am by the strange beauty of blue, green and red limbs in the sun that filters through the Tobacco Dock skylights, I cannot imagine getting a tattoo myself. Perhaps understanding my own resistance is a way to understand other peoples’ acceptance. My first boundary is the obvious one.
“It all relatively hurts,” says Savage, “but some hurt more than others.”
So, there’s the pain. And the more extensive, rich, careful and beautiful the work of art that is pounded by a needle into your body, the longer you have to endure that pain. That makes tattooing a rite of passage: and so it was among the Polynesians before Christian missionaries discouraged them from marking their flesh. Getting a ritual tattoo in the pre-modern Pacific was a way of becoming a man, a warrior, a chief. It was considered erotic, bu paradoxically repelled the god who ruled Paradise. Before he could be buried, a tattooed chief in the Marquesas had to have his skin removed postmortem to be allowed in heaven.
It is the weight of ritual, the sense of undergoing something that changes you, that stops me personally from ever considering a tattoo. But it must also be part of its attraction. Just by visiting a tattooist such as the celebrated Danish artist Eckel you can change who you are. The change is permanent. You are a work of art.
In the Pacific, anthropologists have associated tattoos with a fragmented conception of identity, a belief that a person is not one but many things. Putting on the shining painted skin of a warrior changes your nature.
Are people now seeking to change their natures, to become fabulous new beings? Perhaps there is something digital and post-human about it all, a new sense of self that is no longer bounded by being inside your own skin, but penetrated – as by a needle – by social media and constant internet information, so you feel part of a larger entity, that imprints itself on your body.
Well … that’s as maybe. What I actually feel at the London Tattoo Convention is a seductive sense of adventure, exoticism and fun. It has the feeling of a fantasy world, an escape from workaday reality. Rockabilly is playing, people are parading their opulent chromatic skins, and to be honest, if I stayed here much longer, I might start to get tempted by those parlours after all. The modern art of tattoo is beguiling, magical and sexy. Why would people not be lured into its fantastic alternative universe, where spider webs sprout on backs and flowers on elbows?
Outside is the economic news. As the world gets tougher, the appeal of some kind of escapism grows. Like getting a 1940s hairstyle (also popular here) or reading fantasy stories, being tattooed is a way of breaking out. It’s just a bit more permanent and dramatic, and therefore more intense and efficacious. “You must change your life”, as the poet Rilke wrote, looking at a nude statue of Apollo.
0 notes ♥ December 16th at 4:15 pm
My college essay on the stereotyping of people with tattoos and piercings.
People say to never judge a book by its cover, but yet if someone is covered in tattoos or have piercings they may be looked at differently. Often people get body modifications as a way to express themselves but according to society, having them so blatantly obvious or having too many is “weird” or “not normal.” What makes them so different from everybody, else though? They are still human. So why do people treat others with body modifications differently then?
When applying for a job, one of the crucial parts to getting the job is succeeding in the interview. In order to do well in the interview, the employer often looks at the appearance of whom is applying for the job. According to society’s idea of how someone who works well dresses, a nice shirt and dress pants or skirt is considered proper. But if an employer see’s someone with tattoos that are clearly visible or piercings on his or her face, it is considered improper and the employer may automatically assumes that he or she is a “punk” and that he or she won’t be able to get work done. But the employer is wrong. I bet if given the chance, some of those people might be some of the best workers an employer has ever seen.
Over 4,000 years ago, tattoos were signs of rank in one’s community or were used in medical or spiritual healing processes. Tribes in the past often believed that demons could enter the body through the ears, so they pierced them as a way of protection from the metal. Individuals, then and now, saw mainly piercings as a way of making themselves feel beautiful in their own eyes. Tattoos later on became more about expression. They had a much deeper meaning then they do now in regards to those reasoning’s, but there are still some people who strongly believe in its form of expression.
There is not one true meaning behind getting tattoos or piercings. Some people pierce or tattoo for religious or spiritual reasons. Some artists, such as myself, see the body as a canvas for expression. We have power over our own bodies. Sure, you’re free to express your personality however you desire and it is encouraged, but do one thing to modify your physical appearance and you’re suddenly an outcast.
5 notes ♥ December 16th at 2:41 pm