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The Art of the Tattoo

Over the centuries, people have developed many different ways to create permanent designs on their skins, in the process coming up with even more reasons for doing so. Anthropologists have found that the study of body marking can teach us about the values and culture of a particular society. Among the dozens of works on cultural anthropology in the rare book collections of the Becker Medical Library are several that discuss the history and significance of tattoos. These books reveal not only the interest that scholars have had in interpreting skin decoration but also the great variety in human cultures around the world.


Bulwer, Anthropometamorphosis, page 464

Anthropometamorphosis by John Bulwer

J.B. [John Bulwer]. Anthropometamorphosis: man transform'd: or, the artificall changling historically presented, in the mad and cruell gallantry, foolish bravery, ridiculous beauty, filthy finenesse, and loathesome loveliness of most nations, fashioning and altering their bodies from the mould intended by nature; with figures of those transfigurations. To which artificiall and affected deformations are added, all the native and nationall monstrosities that have appeared to disfigure the humane fabrick. With a vindication of the regular beauty and honesty of nature. And an appendix of the pedigree of the English gallant. London : Printed by William Hunt, 1653. CID B941 1653

The earliest book in the collections to deal with tattoos is considered one of the first works on comparative cultural anthropology. The author, John Bulwer, spent his career in London working as a doctor. During the English Civil War, he took time off to write five books of cultural commentary. They covered a wide variety of topics and many scholars have seen the common theme of his work to be veiled criticism of opponents to the king. His final book of 1650 discussed the many ways in which people around the world tried to change their appearance and includes many lovely woodcut illustrations. Our copy is the 1653 edition and actually the tattoo section is missing four pages. In what we do have, Bulwer describes the different techniques that all sorts of groups, including his European ancestors, have used to make their body paint permanent and terrifying. Bulwer has little direct criticism of any cultural practices but uses the universal nature of such activity to show how humans everywhere are drawn to “unnatural” behavior.


Riecke, Tatauierungswesen, figure 3          Riecke, Tatauierungswesen, figure 60

Tatauierungswesen by Rudolf Erhard Riecke

Rudolf Erhard Riecke. Das Tatauierungswesen im Heutigen Europa (The character of tattooing in Europe today). Jena: Fischer, 1925. xxGN 419.3 R549t 1925

Cultural anthropology really became an active field of scholarship in the final decades of the 19th century, when scholars began to compare the cultures of Europe with the many people they had easy contact with who did not have the same level of technology. Anthropologists struggled with questions of what made people “civilized” and even what was civilization. Differences in clothing and tattooing naturally became an important topic in such discussions because they seemed to identify real differences between cultures. However, the European public developed their own practices that anthropologists called primitive. By the turn of the century, circuses often had tattooed performers and certain subcultures among sailors and the military found their own meaning in tattoos. This of course created new questions for scholars. Rudolf Erhard Riecke, one of the most prominent dermatologists of Germany, looked at what Europeans were doing to their skins and why. He found that tattoos had a great variety of their own symbolism, some of it erotic, some of it criminal, some of it prosaic, but all far removed from the uses of the art in other cultures.


Hambly, The History of Tattooing and Its Significance, facing page 302

The History of Tattooing and Its Significance by Wilfrid Dyson Hambly

Wilfrid Dyson Hambly. The History of Tattooing and Its Significance: With Some Account of Other Forms of Corporal Marking. New York: Macmillan, 1927. xxGN 419.3 H199h 1927

It is interesting to compare Riecke’s analysis of the meanings of European tattoos with what anthropologists were finding around the world. One book to examine the meanings of tattoos and how they had developed social significance among human societies was written by Wilfrid Dyson Hambly, an Oxford educated anthropologist who was soon to become assistant curator for African Ethnography at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Hambly was considered an expert in Sub-Saharan Africa, but this book covers the religious and social meaning of tattooing from around the world. It even contains a chapter comparing the different techniques of permanent marking in various cultures and how those differences affect the significance of tattoos in culture. In his brief paragraph on tattooing among contemporary Europeans, Hambly notes, as Riecke suggested, that tattooing is a very individual act expressing personal meaning. However, Hambly contrasts this with most of the other societies he considers, in which the larger culture has firmly dictated what and when people get tattoos. It should be noted that some critics of his book, including Margaret Mead, felt the sweeping scope of the work did not take local or individual motivation fully into account.


Holländer, Äskulap und Venus, page 55          Holländer, Äskulap und Venus, page 57

Äskulap und Venus by Eugen Holländer

Eugen Holländer. Äskulap und Venus: Eine Kultur- und Sittensgeschichte im Spiegel des Arztes (Asclepius and Venus: a history of culture and manners in the eyes of a doctor) . Berlin: Propyläen, 1928. xxWZ 51 H733

The Berlin doctor who was the first to perform a facelift operation also had a great interest in the intersection of art and medicine. Eugen Holländer’s book on culture and medicine, Asclepius and Venus, relies a great deal on ancient art and artefacts to examine how people took care of themselves in historic cultures. The discussion includes not only healing practices but also the different ways that people tried maintain or even alter their appearances. His chapter on changes to the skin covers a number of anecdotes on the techniques and meaning of tattoos in ancient and modern societies.

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