Friday, September 10, 2010


Recently I have been thinking about tattoos - what they mean historically, anthropologically, and in contemporary culture.

Above: It started when I went to the Skin exhibition at the Wellcome Institute in the Euston Road. I have to force myself to take an interest in scientific and medical issues, otherwise I would never look outside the liberal arts. The Skin exhibition I found interesting but also a bit grisly (one of the cabinets had displays of tattooed human skin).

Above: the exhibition was also reviewed in the Guardian (or is this the Observer?). If you click on the image you should be able to read the text. The newspaper has put this under the heading "Anthropology" but I have not seen any other reports by the newspapers Anthropology Editor.

Above: body art has a considerable antiquity in the British Isles. Painting the body with dyes made from woad dates back to at least Neolithic times. This (public library) book by Jamieson Hurry is a fascinating description of everything you need to know about the plant.

Above: Woad is a fascinating and versatile plant and traces of its former cultivation can be found almost everywhere, marked by place names. There are several thousand Woad Farms in England. The use of woad as an ink for tattooing is not very efficient (the shading is erratic) and so it is almost never used now.

Above: close-up of the pub sign. Thanks to the malign influence of the trashy film Braveheart, painting with woad is wrongly associated with primitive life in medieval Scotland. However it was found in all regions of the British Isles and all levels of society (the Anglo-Saxon king Harold II was identified by his tattoos after being killed at the Battle of Hastings).

Above: probably the practice of marking the body in blue relates to the prehistoric identification of family clans (groups of extended and inter-connected families of up to six thousand in number) with specific animals - bears, eagles, white stags etc. Symbols related to these auspicious animals were marked on the bodies of qualifying members of a particular community. It is possible the origins of heraldry can be traced to the symbolic language of these daubings with paint and skin incisions with blue ink.

Above: it is difficult to assess the influence David Beckham has had on the uptake of tattoos. Is he a fashion leader or a fashion follower? Here you can see David Beckham in an unusual pose that reveals the famous tattoo on his lower back.

Above: the lower back tattoo of David Beckham quickly became adopted as an expression of identity by White Van Man. The popularity of tattoos among other celebrities over the past twenty years has meant the practice has moved from being a fashion to being a convention. For young people today having a tattoo is now a very conservative act.

Above: are tattoos intimidating? Are they designed to intimidate? I saw this group walking across a beach, and everyone got out of their way.

Above: what will happen next? Will tattoos continue to grow in popularity and influence? Or will the practice come to an end as new generations reject the cultural fashions of their parents?

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