Encyclopedia Of Body Modification & Tattooing History
The following is an ongoing series exploring body modification alongside tattooing practices from around the globe. The individual entries are posted every few days or weeks across our ‘Updates’ page and listed here for quick reference. Please feel free to write to the concierge with any questions or requests
Americatattooing had been practiced in the United States by a number of Native American tribes since before Europeans arrived in America...
For instance, many California coastal Indians tattooed decorative marks on women, often on the face; a common design was a series of lines extending from the lips down to the chin. Many Plains and Southwest Indians practiced tattooing as did a number of Southern and Eastern tribes.
Native American tattooing, however, probably had very little impact on the development of tattooing among Euro-Americans. Instead, tattooing in the United States can trace its origins to two related phenomena: the practice, started by Europeans, of sailors and other explorers bringing back from their explorations descriptions of tattoos, tattoos on their own bodies, and tattooed native peoples; and the display of tattooed natives and later, tattooed Europeans, at festivals and carnivals…
From at least the eighteenth century, and perhaps as early as the fifteenth century, European explorers brought home with them information about tattooing as it was practiced by many of the peoples that they encountered during their travels. These sailors began to get tattooed, probably influencing soldiers at home to get tattoos as well. In the United States, certainly since at least the Civil War, tattoos were an acceptable means for soldiers and sailors to demonstrate their love of their country as well as their feelings for the loved ones left behind. The first professional tattoo artist in the United States, Martin Hildebrandt, who opened his shop in New York City in 1846, tattooed many soldiers and sailors on both sides of that war. Hildebrandt also tattooed a number of tattooed attractions, such as his daughter Nora, who was said to have 365 tattoos (one for each day of the year).
[Being tattooed] separates me from
anybody else, no one else has any-
thing like what I have. I feel a little
bit different from Joe Shmoe on the
street, and I guess inside it makes me
Tattooed attractions were, alongside soldiers and sailors, the other major conduit for tattooing to enter mainstream American society. As American and European citizens clamored to see the tattooed natives being displayed at festivals and later World’s Fairs and carnivals, Europeans, and later Americans, got into the act, becoming tattooed themselves and traveling from place to place to earn money as an attraction. Starting in the 1870s, P. T. Barnum brought tattooed attractions into the American circus, and beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century, tattooed people moved onto the carnival midway. Circuses and carnivals brought tattooed people from the cities (where they were previously displayed at dime museums) into the country, where most people had never seen a tattoo, influencing countless men and women to leave their towns, join the circus, and become tattooed.
With Samuel O’Reilly’s invention of the electric tattoo machine, the process of tattooing became faster and less painful. This development played a huge role in the rise of the American circus attraction, as more men and women clamored to tattooists like O’Reilly to get a full-body tattoo in order to earn a living. Through the circus, many tattooists were able to travel the country tattooing, making tattoos more common, if not more popular among respectable citizens.
With O’Reilly’s invention, which allowed the artist to use a number of needles at once for outlining as well as for shading (as opposed to the single needle used in old-fashioned American pricking), the true Americana style of tattooing was born: strong black lines, typically made with five (or more) needles, heavy black shading, and a dab of color (first black and red, and later, green and blue became available).
While tattoo forms were European, consisting of many badge-like designs arranged on the body with no obvious relationship between them, the designs themselves were influenced both by what was popular with European clients (military insignia, hearts, banners, roses, etc.), and by what was specifically relevant to U.S. citizens (primarily patriotic imagery). Asian designs (dragons, Chinese characters, “Suzy Wongs,” tigers, etc.) also became popular in the West as sailors received tattoos at Chinese and Japanese tattoo parlors before the Second World War.
American tattooists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were typically working-class men with no artistic training. Some were sign painters, some learned to tattoo on the circus or carnival circuit, and many answered ads in men’s magazines which promised easy money (“$500 in 5 days”) for tattooing. Other tattooists learned their trade by paying an older tattooist to teach them. Some artist/suppliers would sell poor quality machines to unsuspecting buyers only to then charge them extra to teach them how to properly fix and use the machines. Percy Waters, a tattooist and supplier from the early part of the century, offered not only instructions on tattooing for a dollar (“a dollar well spent”) but offered to help locate the new tattooist in a carnival or circus. And finally, new tattooists could learn to tattoo by serving an apprenticeship with a tattooist. For little to no pay, the apprentice would trace flash, cut stencils, clean equipment, fix machines, make needles, and run errands.
I always wanted one so I got one
fairly small one, it was a bug (I was
already an entomologist), shortly af-
ter I finished my PhD … I’ve kind
of kidded people that the cicada is
just like me because it’s small, harm-
less and makes a really big noise
cause I’m always stirring up trouble.
Tattooing evolved in twentieth century North America in small spaces located alongside barbershops, in dirty corners of arcades, under circus tents, or on carnival boardwalks. While hidden away at the margins of society, the shops were nevertheless a home away from home for large numbers of men: sailors, carneys, drunks, laborers, as well as younger boys who would hang around hoping to learn the trade.
The classic American tattoo, whether the eagle or anchor of the sailor or the more universal vow tattoo (“mom” or a girlfriend or wife’s name), is a literal tattoo, or one whose meaning is readily understood and agreed to by members of the community who are literate in the system. The images were derived from popular culture, the placement was visible, the lines and color were bold, and the liberal use of alphabetic script in tattoos (the “word tattoo”) made them extremely easy to read.
Tattooing began to lose its popularity in the United States after World War II. The Pacific Ocean was no longer a hub of North American military activity, and many of the new enlistees were not planning on a career in the military. In addition, it was in the post–World War II period that saw many new restrictions placed on tattooing around the country, and in some areas, tattooing was banned because of concerns about Hepatitis and other health issues. The circus sideshow, too, which played such a major role in promoting tattooing to the American public, faded as well during this time, leaving heavily tattooed people without an occupation and removing the venue through which tattooists traveled the country.
As the nation’s military men returned to civilian life after World War II, the popularity of tattoos continued to decline as did the powerful influence that the military had on the forms of North American tattoos. While the new middle class busied themselves with marrying, having children, and moving to the suburbs, inner city and port town tattooing fell to its lowest levels of popularity. Traditional American tattooing was still practiced among many working-class men in most tattoo parlors, but a new form of confrontational, biker-style tattooing was developing on the streets. Tattooing in this period became a form of defiance, a challenge to both emerging mainstream middle-class values, as well as to the traditional form of patriotic and love-inspired working-class tattoo. Not only were tattooed outlaw bikers emerging as a sub-cultural group to be viewed with fear by the middle class in the late 1940s, but prisoners and Chicano gang members, already practicing homemade tattooing, moved into the public eye (especially after the zoot suit riots of the 1940s brought so much media attention to the tattooed Pachuco culture), contributing not only to an increasingly negative image of tattooing, but also to a splintering of the practice, wherein imagery, styles, and social practices became adapted to the individual subgroups.
As marginal groups began to wear tattoos in greater numbers (including, as well, hippies in the 1960s and punks in the 1970s and 1980s), tattoos themselves became the mark of marginality, a situation that would not change until the 1970s with the renaissance of American tattooing. This renaissance was led by Don Ed Hardy, Leo Zulueta, and a number of other influential artists (many of whom were influenced by the work of Sailor Jerry Collins), and aided by the spread of non-Western tattoo styles from Japan, Borneo, and other places, as well as the increasing professionalism of the trade…”(Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
BorneoBorneo is a tropical island in Southeast Asia, which is divided into three administrative and political units, controlled by Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Sultanate of Brunei...
The third largest island in the world, it was controlled by the Malay Brunei Sultanate Empire from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and by the nineteenth century, was primarily under the control of the British and the Dutch. By the end of World War II, Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch and later, Malaysia from the British; both countries now control the bulk of the island. Today, the population of Borneo consists of Javanese, Sundanese, Malays, Dayaks (which includes Ibans, Kayans, Kenyahs, and other indigenous tribes), as well as Chinese and Europeans.
Tattooing has long been practiced by many of the indigenous Dayaks, and for most, are spiritual and magical in nature; today, however, traditional tattooing is largely dying out in Borneo. A myth explains the origin of tattooing in Borneo by telling of a bird which fell into a bowl of ink and began to peck at a warrior, until his body was covered with tattoo designs.
Borneo tattoo techniques resemble Samoan techniques in that pins are attached to the end of a stick in a perpendicular fashion and are rested on the skin; a mallet drives the needles in at high speed. The ink is made of powdered charcoal or soot, and is thought to ward off evil spirits, especially when other sacred substances are mixed into the pigment. The tattooists could be men or women—among the Kayan, the women are the artists and inherit the position from their mothers, but among the Iban, men are the tattooists. In both cases, spirits govern the act of tattooing and the artist must call on the spirits for guidance. Some tribes use pattern blocks made out of wood to imprint the design onto the body before tattooing, whereas other tribes freehand the design. Design elements include plants and animals which have curative or protective powers, such as dogs, pigs, birds, flowers, and ancestral spirits.
A man without tattoos is invisible to the gods – IBAN proverb
Tattoos were worn by both men and women on shoulders, arms, hands (especially the fingers), legs, and feet, and were able to protect the wearer from harmful spirits, illness, and harm. In addition, like tattoos worn by many tribal peoples, they indicate social rank, as only the elites could wear certain designs, and in general, tattoos, because they had to be paid for with beads or pigs, were not easily affordable by all. They also represented prestige earned by head hunting for men, or weaving, dancing, and singing for women. Iban men who had participated in a headhunt could have their fingers tattooed with spirits, and women received geometric patterns on the fingers, and images of spirits on her wrists. Men also received tattoos—which also symbolize new beginnings—as a sign of manhood, during a rite of passage attended by other men in the community. Tattoos were also decorative.
Older Ngaju men who had attained wealth and stature were able to receive the most complete tattoo, which used images from nature such as palm fronds to cover the shoulder and arms and a great tree to cover the torso, and took days or weeks to complete, leaving the wearer, according to tribesmen, perfect, sacred, and complete…”(Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Celtsthe terms Celtic or Celt generally refer to the cultures and languages of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany...
The origin of insular (i.e., found on the British Isles) Celtic peoples and languages is controversial but most scholars feel that Celts are not indigenous to the British Isles but instead arrived from the European continent through centuries of trade and other contact, starting around the ninth century BCE. By the Roman period, however, most of the inhabitants of the isles of Ireland and Great Britain were Celtic in terms of language and culture.
The tribal [tattoo] ties back into the
old ways, the back to nature kind
of thing. The first people, the Celts,
were into tattooing, and I’m going
to get a Celtic cross over my heart
that’ll separate and divide my rain
forest. I’m just heavy into nature, I
guess I’m almost pagan, that’s why
I’m getting all this stuff.
Prior to the arrival of the Romans, some tribes of insular Celts most likely used tattooing to mark tribal affiliation and other salient social features. Caesar, for example, in 55 BCE, referred to body painting with woad among the Celts, but it may have been tattooing rather than painting that he saw. A quote from Herodian, a firstcentury Roman historian, noted that the Celts, who wore no clothing, “punctured” their bodies with pictures of animals. There is also evidence that contemporary cultures to the Celts, like the Scythians, who were known to have influenced Celtic culture, practiced tattooing.
The Picts, another Celtic tribe, are thought to have been given their Roman name (which means painted people) from the practice of painting or dying their bodies, or from the iron tool used to tattoo. In addition, “Briton” means painted in various colors. Roman conquerors describe the Britons that they encountered as having their bodies, faces, and, hands painted. But, again, painting could also refer to the practice of tattooing.
The Roman occupation of Britain led to a merging of Roman and Celtic cultural practices. Once the Celts came under Roman control and became Christianized, they soon adopted the wearing of Christian tattoos, as in the style of the Jerusalem souvenir tattoos. These tattoos were referred to in Medieval Celtic texts as stigmata, the term used to describe tattoos in the Christianized Roman world. This practice may also have been associated, as with the Roman practice, with the marking of slaves and criminals, but it was certainly used by Celtic Christians to mark devotion.
By about the fifth century as the Roman Empire collapsed, the Celts were pushed westwards by Germanic invaders, although it is unclear how much of Celtic culture survived to influence modern English culture and the English practice of tattooing” (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
ChicanosChicano refers to people of Mexican descent who live in the Southwestern states of the United States, primarily California...
Chicano tattooing began with the pachuco gang culture of the 1940s and 1950s in the barrios of California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Tattooing in this context was originally done by hand with a sewing needle wrapped with thread and dipped in India ink. Classic Chicano tattooing utilizes exclusively black ink, fine lines (because of the use of a single needle), and bold shading. Chicano and Mexican tattooists use color and professional machines for their tattoos, but many Chicano youth, prisoners, and gang members still wear the monochromatic, handpicked tattoos. Whether by hand or by machine, classic Chicano tattoos are immediately distinguishable from classic American tattooing by the thin lines, lack of color, and different imagery used. Images popular in Chicano tattooing include religious iconography like the Virgin of Guadelupe or Christ with a crown of thorns, long-haired sexy women, low-riders and other period cars, Aztec warriors and imagery, and the Old English lettered-loca, or gang or neighborhood of origin, usually tattooed across the back or the chest.
Chicano tattoo art is very similar to other forms of Chicano art such as mural and low-rider art, although certain images are limited to tattoos. Without a doubt the most classic Chicano tattoo is the small “pachuco cross” tattooed on the hand between forefinger and thumb. It was once used to identify members of gangs and to assert the solidarity of the group; to outsiders the cross represented crime and violence. To insiders, however, Chicano tattoos tend to represent loyalty to community, family, women, and God—very similar in theme to the nationalist designs seen among sailors, but stylistically, a world apart.
Freddy Negrete and Jack Rudy, two East Los Angeles tattooists, were possibly the first professional tattooists working in this style in the late 1970s. They, along with tattooist Charlie Cartright, perfected this technically difficult style, bringing it to mainstream prominence. Because of the use of single needles, this type of work was more finely detailed than traditional American tattoos, allowing the creation of finely shaded, “photo realistic,” portraits on the skin. Ed Hardy was impressed by the work that these men were doing, and bought Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland after Cartright quit tattooing. Later, Rudy and Negrete moved into a different shop together, still with Hardy’s support. Hardy liked the style so much that he opened Tattoo City in San Francisco’s (predominantly Latino) Mission District in 1975 in order to focus on just this kind of work. Rudy, who now runs the Tattooland chain, has since become world famous for his portraits, and is one of a number of “tattooists’ tattooists,” that is, tattooists who are sought out for work by other tattooists.
Today, because of the influence of Chicano tattooing, it is rare for a tattooist to use heavy needles for outlines, unless he or she is specifically trying to create an old-fashioned, traditional look (or a tribal tattoo). Chicano-style tattooing, and its fine-lined technique, now serves as the basis for many newer trends in mainstream U.S. tattooing. Indeed, it has made possible many of these newer styles of tattoo like circuitry-based tattoos. The only places where fine-lined tattooing is still not popular is in street shops that cater to military clientele. Most sailors and soldiers do not want this sort of work, and many old-time tattooists refuse to do it because they do not feel that it holds up over time.
Not only have the technical elements of Chicano tattooing been embraced by the middle class, but the imagery now has as well. The Virgin of Guadeloupe and the head of Christ have become favored motifs among the young middle class, and even the loca has been adopted by middle-class white patrons and is translated onto their chests, necks, and stomachs in a simulation of Chicano street life” (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Collins, Sailor JerrySailor Jerry Collins (1911–1973) was born Norman Keith Collins and started tattooing as a teenager, originally using the hand-pricking method..
In the late 1920s, Collins met Chicago tattooist Tatts Thomas who taught him how to use a tattoo machine. Under the tutelage of Thomas, Collins practiced on drunks brought in from Skid Row. He made his home in Hawaii in the 1930s, where he opened his first tattoo parlor, and also worked as a dockworker.
Collins developed an early interest in Asian imagery during his travels through the Far East (he served as a merchant marine in World War II and often tattooed at his ports of call), and through his peacetime exposure to other sailors’ tattoos, and incorporated dragons and other designs into his flash. He also had a strong interest in improving tattooing as an art form, and felt that most U.S. tattooists were greedy, talentless copycats. Early on he sought out and began a correspondence with tattooists like Paul Rogers and Brooklyn Joe Lieber who shared his interest in improving the art. At the same time, he spoke out against those who he saw as hurting the field through their shady business practices and lack of talent.
But it was not until 1960, when he opened his final tattoo shop in Honolulu’s Chinatown that his interest in the “Oriental style” of tattooing really blossomed. He developed a trade relationship with Japanese tattooist Horihide, and Hong Kong tattooist Pinky Yun, whereby he would exchange American machines and needles for designs and advice. He was especially impressed by the Japanese use of colors, shading, and their focus on the entire body as a canvas for sophisticated artistic expression. Ironically, while Collins developed a close business friendship with tattooists Horihide, Horiyoshi II, and Horisada, he also never forgave the Japanese for bombing Pearl Harbor and for what he saw as their economic takeover of Hawaii. In fact, by his own admission, Collins wanted to “beat them at their own game”: to create an American style that was based on what he called the “Jap style of tattoo,” yet one that reflected imagery from the United States.
What he did was borrow the Japanese aesthetic style—wind bars, finger waves, full-body tattoos—to represent the history and pop culture of Americana: General Custer at Little Big Horn, the Alamo, the Spirit of ’76, Rock of Ages, big busted mermaids, and other images inspired by the North American imagination. This was extremely innovative, and reflected Collins’ belief that what was exceptional about Japanese tattooing was not the central image, but the background. While other old-time tattooists had been doing large-scale pieces since at least the 1940s, Jerry was the first to achieve the unified look of the Japanese tattoo in the West, through the use of the wind and water in the background.
While most tattooists in the United States did not show an interest in Jerry’s work, resisting the Oriental influence, a few did. Cliff Raven and Ed Hardy, who would both be critical in the transformations of North American tattooing in the 1970s and 1980s, noticed his work in the late 1960s through tattooist Don Nolan, and all three developed important relationships with Collins aimed at learning more about the Japanese style of tattoo and incorporating it into their own work” (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Cook, Captain JamesCaptain James Cook (1728–1779) was an English explorer who made three voyages to the Pacific Ocean...
He was the first European who explored Australia and Hawaii and circumnavigated Newfoundland and New Zealand. Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific was in 1766 when the Royal Society hired him to observe and record the transit of Venus across the Sun. He arrived in Tahiti in 1769 and brought a Tahitian named Tupaia with him who helped him reach New Zealand later that year. In 1770 he first reached Australia and had contact with Australian Aborigines.
Cook’s second voyage began in 1772 and was again commissioned by the Royal Society, this time to search for the mythical Terra Australis, which the Society felt lay further south than the actual island of Australia which he had already encountered. On this leg of the voyage the captain of one of his ships, Captain Furneaux, brought back with him a young tattooed Tahitian man named Omai. Another crew member, Joseph Banks, later displayed Omai as a human oddity throughout Europe. In 1774 on his return trip, Cook also visited Tonga (which he named the Friendly Island) and Easter Island (which he named because he landed on Easter Sunday).
Cook made a third voyage in 1776 to locate the Northwest Passage, and to return Omai, bearing European gifts, to Tahiti. After returning Omai, Cook became the first European to visit Hawaii in 1778. From Hawaii, Cook traveled to Vancouver in North America, and returned to Hawaii in 1779, where he met his death at the hands of the Hawaiians.
“The universality of tattooing is a curious subject for speculation” – Captain James Cook, 1779
It was thanks to Captain Cook that Polynesian tattooing was brought to Europe and later America, igniting a resurgence of Western tattooing. While tattooing had existed in Europe prior to the colonial encounters in Polynesia (Christian pilgrims, for example, had been receiving tattoos as souvenirs of their faith on pilgrimages to the Holy Land for centuries, the Celts had practiced tattooing prior to the Roman conquest, and tattooing was used as a form of punishment), it was through the early explorations of the Pacific that tattooing came into modern European consciousness, and eventually began its transformation from a mark of the underclasses.
It was Cook who gave the first accounts of Polynesian tattooing, first, in 1769 upon his stay in Tahiti. Also that year he visited New Zealand where he and his crew were the first Europeans to describe the Moko, and in 1778, when he first encountered Hawaiians and Hawaiian tattooing. Cook and his crew wrote and drew about the practice on subsequent voyages, and Cook was the first Westerner to use the Tahitian word ta-tu or tatau when describing the practice (prior to that time, tattoos were known in Europe as “pricks” or “marks”). Cook’s crew noted that Polynesian tattoos included lines, stars, and other geometric designs, as well as figures of animals and humans, and were worn by both men and women. In addition, at least as far back as 1784, Cook’s own crewmen started getting tattooed by the native people, and thus played a major part in bringing the tattoo to Europe.
Cook’s crew also played a major role in changing indigenous Polynesian tattoos. At the time of European contact, tattoos in Tahiti, for instance, were primarily linear and included as well representations of plants and animals. By the nineteenth century, later voyagers noted that the designs included, in addition to the animals and plants found earlier, rifles and cannons and dates and words commemorating the origin and death of chiefs. These newer designs were probably introduced to the Polynesians by Cook’s crew. Also by this time, Western ship artists, using native technology, were tattooing the Polynesians, again with introduced designs.
After the native people adopted Western weapons, their tattoos, now influenced by Westerners, probably became solely decorative, as tattoos would no longer need to serve their original magical and protective functions (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
CriminalityIn societies around the world, but especially in state-level societies, criminals have commonly been marked in some way by the state either...
…either as punishment for their crime, to identify them as a criminal, or to stigmatize them throughout their lives. In addition, corporal punishment, in which the body is the site of the punishment via whipping, the removal of a limb, or even death, is another way that punishment is literally “marked” on the body.
Some trace the evolution of this practice to the biblical story in which God places a mark on Cain, the first murderer, to brand him as a criminal and social outcast, but corporal punishment had been practiced throughout the GrecoRoman and Egyptian world. In addition, all those cultures used tattooing and branding as a form of punishment and identification for criminals, practices which were continued throughout Western civilization in Europe and the Americas.
The first known societies to use tattoos in a punitive fashion were the Thracians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, all of whom marked runaway slaves and criminals. The Persians tattooed slaves and prisoners with the name of their captor, master, and sometimes the emperor, and Roman slaves were marked on the face with either the crime or the punishment (which was commonly being sent to the mines), until Constantine outlawed facial tattooing in the fourth century. The Greeks and Romans both called these tattoos stigmata, and punitive tattooing remained in the Roman world through ninth century.
Punitive tattooing and branding traveled through the Roman world to Europe where both practices were used in Germany, England, and France to mark slaves, prisoners, adulterers, army deserters, and the like. The American colonies inherited the practices as well. Slave masters in American and West Indian colonies also used tattooing and branding for the identification of slaves and to punish runaway or insubordinate slaves.
In India, another European colony, after 1797, criminals had their criminal status tattooed on them. The word for tattooing in Hindi later came to mean the marking of criminals in the nineteenth century. Indian criminals were sometimesalso branded with the English word for thug. Many Indian criminals attempted to cover, remove, or change their markings via wearing their hair longer or turbans over their faces. The Japanese used punitive tattooing as well. In Japan, tattoos moved from punitive to decorative as people developed elaborate designs to mask criminal tattoos. In fact, the modern practice of prisoners tattooing themselves in prison probably derived from punitive tattooing, when convicts turned their mark of criminality into a badge of honor.
Tattoos and brands were a preferred form of punishment in all of these cases because it was a dual-purpose punishment: one purpose was to inflict pain, but another was to permanently, and often very publicly proclaim the crime, either through the words or letters used, or simply the fact that forehead tattoos were associated with criminality.
Tattooing is most common among criminals. CESARE LOMBROSO, criminologist, 1895
Criminality is associated with the body in another way as well. European criminal scholars once thought that certain forms of body modification, particularly tattoos, could be linked to a tendency toward criminal behavior, and a great many books were written and studies conducted in order to test the link between tattooing and criminal behavior. These theories can be drawn from biological approaches popular in the nineteenth century that saw crime as being caused by inheritance, and that furthermore, a person’s physical appearance could indicate their disposition to crime.
The idea that a person’s character can be interpreted by looking at his or her face is derived from ancient times, but was codified into a scientific theory in the nineteenth century called phrenology, which postulated that the shape of the brain and the skull could reveal an individual’s personality and psychological development.
An Italian doctor named Cesare Lombroso was an advocate of this approach and examined the bodies of hundreds of criminals in the nineteenth century in order to ascertain the physical characteristics shared by criminals. Not surprisingly, he found that a number of traits, such as broad noses or fleshy lips, were found more commonly in criminals, and came up with a theory that said that these traits were associated with “primitive man.” Of course these traits were also found more commonly among Africans, a group he knew to be inferior to whites.
Lombroso also wrote about tattooing, which he associated with criminality. Again, this association is not surprising given the practice, since Roman times, of tattooing criminals. After conducting a study of prisoners, Lombroso felt that wearing tattoos would predispose a person to commit crime, and that criminals and tattooed people both had a higher tolerance for pain than others.
This association between tattooing and criminal behavior extends well beyond Lombroso. In India, for instance, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, British colonial authorities noted the use of tattoos among many of the tribal groups. They also shared Lombroso’s theories that criminality was inherent and they thought that they could chart the use of tattoos by different groups in India to show their propensity toward criminality. Tribal groups were seen as especially crime-prone so their tattoos were especially scrutinized.
In Australia in the nineteenth century, convicts sent from England to the penal colonies there had their tattoos catalogued prior to leaving England, and again upon reaching Australia, as a way of identifying convicts in the days before fingerprinting, and as a way of apprehending escaped convicts. Because the convicts often tattooed themselves on the ship en route to Australia, perhaps out of boredom or collective suffering (and probably due to the proximity of tattooed sailors around them), their new tattoos were a way of subverting English authority in that their body markings would now differ from when they left England. This demonstrates a practice that was also seen in Roman times: of criminals self-marking themselves in order to erase or cover the criminal marks given to them, or even to highlight them, seeing them as a badge of honor.
Today, law enforcement agencies continue to track the tattoos on former criminals, gang members, and those who have been arrested for a crime (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)