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A Medium, Not a Phenomenon: An Argument for an Art-Historical Approach to Western Tattooing

Part of the Palgrave Studies in Fashion and the Body book series (PSFB)

Abstract

Tattooing in the West has long been of great interest to scholars from a range of academic disciplines, including anthropology, criminology, and psychology, as well as to philosophers and theorists. In this chapter, I argue that these approaches are almost all flawed in various ways, as they develop their accounts on the back of historical sources and modern misconceptions which are partial, error-strewn, and in several key cases outright fabrications. Theoretical accounts which purport to think about who has been tattooed, in what circumstances, with what images, to what effect and for what reasons almost all undertake their theoretical work quixotically, tilting at an understanding of the practice and the industry of tattooing which is fundamentally misguided.

To attempt to provide a new bedrock upon which scholars in these diverse disciplines can realign future work, I propose here the outlines of a methodological proposition for thinking about Western tattooing as a historically contingent artistic practice, in which tattoo artists and the images they produce are foregrounded, and in which longstanding misconceptions about the historical trajectories of tattooing can begin to be corrected. I argue for the importance of primary source historical work in private collections; for a mode of analysis which understands tattooing as a medium and not a phenomenon; and ultimately for the utility of scholarship from art historians and art theorists on the production and reception of images in more traditional media to the studying of tattooing in Western contexts.

Keywords

  • Tattooing
  • Art history
  • History
  • Methodology

When art historians look back on this period of history, it will be impossible to ignore the fact that tattooing is massive and that it has had a massive influence on popular culture worldwide. A lot of high art, conceptual art, and gallery art maybe gets more column inches in some of the papers, but in fact more people know about tattooing and are into tattooing than that kind of art. Full stop.

—Alex Binnie, tattooist, 2013. (Mortal Work of Art, presented by Mary-Anne Hobbes, aired 9 September 2013. BBC Radio 4, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b039pdtg.).

A good deal is coming to be heard of tattooing—that is to say, of tattooing as a modern fine art

The Sketch, 1897. (“Tattooing,” The Sketch, 16 June 1897, 327.)

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This present chapter expands upon and makes direct use of material originally presented in my unpublished PhD thesis. Matt Lodder, “Body Art: Body Modification as Artistic Practice” (PhD diss., University of Reading, 2010).

  2. 2.

    Margo DeMello’s Bodies of Inscription (2000) makes an important contribution, and is perhaps the closest recent contender, though she is an anthropologist by training and approach. Margot Mifflin and Amelia Osterud’s books on tattooed women are also exceptions to the general trend I identify. The gaps at the scholarly end of the market are filled by non-academic but important books such as Scutt & Gotch’s Art, Sex and Symbol (1974), which undertakes some primary source scholarship of the kind for which I advocate here, though does not analyze it in any particularly academically-rigorous way.

  3. 3.

    Paul Hockings et al., “Where Is the Theory in Visual Anthropology?Visual Anthropology, 27, no. 5 (2014): 436–456. doi:10.1080/08949468.2014.950155 I am particularly struck by Hocking’s explanation that “as anthropologists we commonly look for implicational meanings ‘behind’ someone’s intentional choice” (438). Hocking’s also draws heavily on Talcott Parsons’ influential theory of structural functionalism (“Theory in the Humanities and Sociology,” Daedalus 99, no. 2 (1970): 495–523).

  4. 4.

    As Petra Frank Witt put it recently, “the vigorous debate of intentionality that is alive and well in philosophical and literary circles has no equivalent in art historical discourse.” Moreover, “in the absence of a firm art historical commitment to the isolation of intention in its interpretative practices, the discourse touching on intention tended to be imported from the outside,” including (fittingly enough) from Alfred Gell. “Intentionality in art: empirical exposure,” Journal of Visual Art Practice 19/4 (2020): 297–309.

  5. 5.

    Marc Blanchard, “Post-Bourgeois Tattoo: Reflections on Skin Writing in Late Capitalist Societies,” Visual Anthropology Review, 7/2 (1991): 11–21.

  6. 6.

    Alfred Gell, Wrapping in images. Tattooing in Polynesia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993). In Wrapping’s introduction, Gell is explicit that the work on tattooing arises from his development of a more general method set for the lectures which would become Art of Anthropology.

  7. 7.

    Alfred Gell, “Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology” in Art & Anthropology (Oxford: Berg, 2006), 159, 161.

  8. 8.

    Christopher Pinney & Nicholas Thomas, eds., Beyond Aesthetics (Oxford: Berg, 2001), 6.

  9. 9.

    Alfred Gell, Art & Agency (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 3.

  10. 10.

    Sean Mallon, “Tattooing: A Hidden History” in Tatau: A History of Samoan Tattooing, eds. Sean Mallon & Sebastien Galliot (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2018), 72.

  11. 11.

    Nicholas Thomas, “The Case of Tattooing,” in Contemporary Art and Anthropology, ed. Arnd Schneider & Christopher Wright (Oxford: Routledge, 2006).

  12. 12.

    Wrapping in Images, 10.

  13. 13.

    See, for example, Nicholas Thomas, Anna Cole & Bronwen Douglas, Tattoo: Bodies, Art & Exchange in the Pacific and the West (London: Reaktion, 2005). For full detail on the “Cook Myth,” see Anna Felicity Friedman Herhily, “Tattooed transculturites: Western expatriates among Amerindian and Pacific Islander societies, 1500–1900,” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2012).

  14. 14.

    Nicholas Thomas “‘Their method of tatowing I shall now describe’: Tattoo instruments from Tahiti” in Artefacts of Encounter: Cook’s Voyages, Colonial Collecting and Museum Histories, eds. Nicholas Thomas, Julie Adams, Billie Lythberg & Amira Salmond (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2016), 97. Emphasis mine.

  15. 15.

    “Angli … puncturatis stigmatiem insignitii,” in William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum. Book III, trans. Thomas Duffus Hardy (London: Samuel Bentley, 1839).

  16. 16.

    See, for example, Thomas Hariot, America. A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, of the commodities and of the nature and manners of the naturall inhabitants (Frankfurt am Main: Sigismundi Feirabendii, 1590), Stuart Pigott, Ancient Britons and the Antiquarian Imagination (London: Thames & Hudson, 1989), 76–82; and Richard Dibon-Smith, “The Pictish Tattoo: Origins of a Myth” in New Ideas About the Past: Seven Essays in Cultural History (n.d). https://www.academia.edu/9800078/The_Pictish_Tattoo_Origins_of_a_Myth.

  17. 17.

    Edmund Gibson, William Camden’s Britannia Abridg’d. Vol. I. (London: Joseph Wild), 1701.

  18. 18.

    John Baptista Porta, Natural Magick (London: John Wright, 1669), Book 16, 349.

  19. 19.

    “Both men and women of this countrey pricke themselves, making divers markes, and of divers coloures, on they bodyes,” The Most Noble and Famous Travels of Marcus Paulus …, trans. John Frampton (London: Ralph Newbery, 1579), 143. Tales of other tattoo practices appear in later editions which include text from different manuscript versions.

  20. 20.

    See, for example, Lars Krutak, Tattoo Traditions of Native North America (Arnhem: Stichting LM, 2014).

  21. 21.

    See, for example, Katherine Dauge Roth, Signing the Body (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020).

  22. 22.

    The full story of Mikak’s reception in London through a lens of tattoo scholarship will be told in a future publication. For detail on Mikak’s life story and her time in London, see, for example, Marianne Stopp, “Eighteenth Century Labrador Inuit in England,” Arctic. 62, no. 1. (March 2009), 45–64.

  23. 23.

    “Parents who send their Children when young, mark some image on their arm with a needle, or the point of a knife; and these marks being rubbed over with a particular black ink, they never wear out.” John George Keysler, Travels through Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, Switzerland, Italy and Lorrain (London: A. Linde, 1756), 46.

  24. 24.

    See, for example, Newcastle Courant, 27 January 1739 and Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton, “Visible Bodies: Power, Subordination and Identity in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World,” Journal of Social History, 39, no. 1 (Fall 2005), 39–64. There are many further sources in the American colonial gazettes for ‘marked’ indentured servants. See, for example, Benjamin Fendall’s story, “Clarks County in Maryland, July 2nd 1739,” Virginia Gazette (Parks), Williamsburg, 13 July 1739. One John Headford, an escaped English servant, sailor and cook, is described such that “on one of his Arms is represented, our Saviour upon the Cross between two Thieves; and on the other, the Image of Adam and Eve.” Another, a “squat, well-fed” Londoner called Richard Kibble was described as having “a great many Letters and Figures on his Breast and Left Arm, some in Red and some in Black.”

  25. 25.

    For more on the relationship between Gell’s anthropology of art and the methods of art history, see Matthew Rampley, “Alfred Gell’s Anthropology of Art.” Art History. 28, no 4. (September 2005).

  26. 26.

    Theodor de Bry in Thomas Hariot, A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, of the commodities and of the nature and manners of the naturall inhabitants (Frankfurt am Main: Ioannis Wecheli, 1590), XXIII “Som picture of the Pictes which in the olde tyme dyd habite one part of the great Bretainne.”

  27. 27.

    Henry Balfour, The Evolution of Decorative Art (New York: Macmillan, 1893), 73.

  28. 28.

    Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament (London: Day & Son, 1856), 13.

  29. 29.

    Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring, 1982), 1–19. Emphasis mine.

  30. 30.

    Blanchard, “Post-Bourgeois Tattoo,” 11.

  31. 31.

    Prown, “Mind in Matter, 7.”

  32. 32.

    Jas Elsner, “Art History as Ekphrasis,” Art History. 33, no. 1. (February 2010), 11.

  33. 33.

    E. J. Harnik. “Pleasure in Disguise, the Need for Decoration and the Sense of Beauty,” The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 1932, no 1, 216–264.

  34. 34.

    Harnik. “Pleasure in Disguise,” 238.

  35. 35.

    John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Penguin, 2005) 236.

  36. 36.

    Arthur Christopher Moule & Paul Pelliot, Marco Polo. The Description of the World (London, George Routledge & Sons, 1938). The Latin is transcribed in Volume II, p. xxxv (32r), with Moule’s translation in Volume I, p. 297. The tattooing is ascribed to a “magister” in Latin, which the first English translation in 1938 renders in context as “master, who practices no other art.” Nigel Cliff’s modern critical edition (Marco Polo, The Travels. tr. N. Cliff (Penguin Classics, 2015) renders this more directly as “Then the artist takes five needles …”

  37. 37.

    George Best, A true discourse of the late voyages of discouerie (London: Henry Bynnyman, 1578). 3/65.

  38. 38.

    “New Zealand Tattooing,” Berkshire Chronicle (25 January 1834), 4.

  39. 39.

    Gambier Bolton, “A Tattoo Artist,” Pearson’s Magazine (August 1902), 175. The term actually dates back to at least 1871, where it is used in article about Burmese tattooing. Rev. A. T. Rose, “Tattooing,” in Missionary Magazine (Boston: American Baptist Missionary Union, vol. LI, 1871), 108.

  40. 40.

    John Wilton, “Toward an Understanding of Skin Art,” in Pluralistic Approaches to Art Criticism, eds. D. Blandy and K. G. Congdon (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991), 73–87.

  41. 41.

    “Tattooing,” The Saturday Review, 3 December 1881, 694.

  42. 42.

    Eugene P. Wright, “Modern Fashions in Tattooing,” Vanity Fair, January 1926, 43. Melanie Phillips, “These awful tattoos show we’re turning pagan. The craze for body art signifies a deep shift in western values away from respect for humanity,” The Times. 5 April 2016, 24.

  43. 43.

    “Tattoo You?” City Limits 18, 5–11 February, 1982, 36.

  44. 44.

    For a specific example of this fact, see my paper “‘Things of the sea’: iconographic continuities between tattooing and handicrafts in Georgian-era maritime culture,” Sculpture Journal. 24, no. 2. (2015), 195–210.

  45. 45.

    Gemma Angel, “Roses & Daggers: Expressions of Emotional Pain and Devotion in Nineteenth-Century Tattoos,” Probing the Skin: Cultural Representations of our Contact Zone (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2015).

  46. 46.

    Nikki Sullivan, Tattooed Bodies—Subjectivity, Textuality, Ethics and Pleasure (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001), 47.

  47. 47.

    See, for example, “Pictures on the Skin,” English Illustrated Magazine 1903 and R. J Stephen, “TATTOOED ROYALTY. Queer Stories of a Queer Craze,” The Harmsworth Monthly Pictorial Magazine. Vol 1. 1898.

  48. 48.

    Katsushkia Hokusai “Random Drawings by Hokusai,” vol. I (Tokyo: Eirakuya Toshiro, 1815). British Museum 1979,0305,0.428.2. Cho 17 verso.

  49. 49.

    Emily Eastgate Brink, “Touch Codes and Japanese Taste: The Material Experience of Félix Bracquemond’s Service Rousseau,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 2018, 18:1, 108–124.

  50. 50.

    National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo. OA.2015-0003. Hokusai and Japonisme [exhibition], National Museum of Western Art (October 2017–January 2018), objs. 105 & 117. The Gallé vase is in the collection of the Musée de l’École de Nancy.

  51. 51.

    Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime” in Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture, ed. Ulrich Conrads, trans Michael Bullock (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1973), 19.

  52. 52.

    Juliet Fleming, “The Renaissance Tattoo,” in Written on the Body—The Tattoo in European and American History, ed. J. Caplan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 65.

  53. 53.

    Fleming, “Renaissance,” 65.

  54. 54.

    V. Vale & Andrea Juno, Modern Primitives (San Francisco: RE/Search, 1989), 52.

  55. 55.

    “The Tattooing Artist,” The Sun. New York, 18 December 1872, 1. “Tattooing in New York,” The New York Times, 16 January 1876, 10. Albert Parry, Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2006), 44.

  56. 56.

    Parry, Tattoo, 43.

  57. 57.

    Fleming, “Renaissance,” 64.

  58. 58.

    Samuel Steward, Bad Boys & Tough Tattoos (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1990), 167. Angel as a specialist in the history of post-mortem preservation of tattooing, has taken the name “Life and Six Months” as the name for her website. The following chapter by her is also useful on the archival preservation of tattooed skin: Gemma Angel, “Recovering the Nineteenth-Century European Tattoo: Collections, Contexts and Techniques” in Ancient Ink, eds., Lars Krutak & Aaaron Deter-Wolf (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017), 107–129.

  59. 59.

    “Tattooed Marchioness,” LIFE, 18 July 1938. “Lady Londonderry’s Fashion-Setting Tattooed Legs,” San Antonio Light. 17 July 1938, 69.

  60. 60.

    Parry, Tattoo, 49–51.

  61. 61.

    The Digital Panopticon, Alfred Brown, Life Archive ID fasai07749 (https://www.digitalpanopticon.org/life?id=fasai07749). Version 1.2.1, consulted 9 February 2021.

  62. 62.

    Wittman, Ole, Christian Warlich: Tattoo Flash Book. London: Prestel, 2019.

  63. 63.

    Ruth Hawthorn and John Miller, “Tattoos, deviance and consumer culture in North American television” in Tattoos in Crime and Detective Narratives, eds. Kate Watson and Katharine Cox (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019).

  64. 64.

    Margo DeMello, “Not Just for Bikers Anymore,” Journal of Popular Culture 29/3 (1995: Winter), 37–52; “Tattooing,” The Sketch. June 16, 1897, 327.

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Lodder, M. (2022). A Medium, Not a Phenomenon: An Argument for an Art-Historical Approach to Western Tattooing. In: Martell, J., Larsen, E. (eds) Tattooed Bodies. Palgrave Studies in Fashion and the Body. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-86566-5_2

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