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Centuries-old art of tattooing has complicated origins

Michelle Myles, a co-owner of Daredevil Tattoo, sits inside her shop. The shop also serves as a kind of museum, showcasing antique tattoo machines, original photos, news articles and sideshow banners.

SARAH BLESENER/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By SEBASTIAN MODAK | Special to The Washington Post | Published: November 19, 2020

In today’s travel guides to Japan, tattoos are generally only mentioned in the context of places where tourists should be prepared to cover them up, such as gyms, public pools and bathing houses known as onsens. A century ago, it was a very different story.

Guidebooks, like Basil Hall Chamberlain’s 1893 “Handbook for Travellers in Japan,” feature ads for fine art galleries that double as tattoo parlors; you could pick up a piece of Japanese pottery while getting a more permanent souvenir. In “Vacation Days in Hawaii and Japan,” published in the early 1900s, Philadelphia-based writer Charles M. Taylor Jr. devotes multiple pages to a meeting with Hori Chiyo, an artist who claimed to have tattooed the British princes Albert Victor and the future King George V.

In Japan at the time, tattoos were seen as a sign of degeneracy. They were used to brand criminals — and for those criminals to then cover up their brands. As the country opened up to the West for the first time, the emperor outlawed the art, seeing it as antithetical to modernity. Ironically, tattooing for tourists remained legal — and, as Chamberlain wrote in a 1905 travel guide, the Japanese take on the art was considered the champagne of tattooing: “an art as vastly superior to the ordinary British sailor’s tattooing as Heidsieck Monopole is to small beer.”

Today, tattoos are popular among travelers, as ways to pay homage to a place (e.g., Japanese kanji script, an iconic building) or to traveling as a way of life (e.g., a compass, a map of the world). But how far back does the practice go? The history of tattooing as a way to mark travels is hard to pin down. But there is something that most scholars agree on: The most common origin story is wrong, and the meaning of tattoos isn’t always clear cut.

Yes, Capt. James Cook sailed the Pacific Ocean in the 18th century, and many of his crewmen might have received tattoos from the Polynesian people they encountered along the way. Sometimes there might have even been an overlap in the reasons British and Polynesian sailors got tattoos: protection, for example. The letters “H-O-L-D F-A-S-T” tattooed across the knuckles was thought to save a sailor when letting go of a rope was a matter of life and death.

But the common narrative that those sailors were the first people to bring tattoos back to Europe isn’t true. Rather, according to some, it’s a story rooted in some of the same instincts that make people get tattooed on their travels today.

“There’s a misconception in certain Western cultural memory that tattooing is sort of something that’s foreign,” says Matt Lodder, senior lecturer of art history at the University of Essex in England. “Certainly that’s what drove a lot of the history: it was part of a cultural encounter, acquiring something ‘exotic.’ ”

Tracing the history of Europeans getting tattoos to mark trips to distant lands brings us much further back than British nobility visiting Japan or even sailors returning from the Pacific islands with the bold, black Polynesian tattoos that are still popular today.

Both Lodder and Lars Krutak, a tattoo anthropologist, pinpoint some of the first instances of traveler tattoos in Europe to pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. In the 1600s, a trip to Jerusalem was arduous, dangerous and the ultimate way to show just how good of a Christian you were. There, Coptic Christians from Egypt had tattooing down to a brisk business, using carved blocks to replicate commonly requested designs, like the Jerusalem cross — a grid of four small crosses around one central cross — accompanied by the year of the pilgrimage.

“By having a stencil block pre-made, they could just stamp it on somebody’s arm and go on to the next person,” Krutak says. “On holy days, you’d have a line of people out the door and around the block.”

Hundreds of years later, some of those blocks can still be found at Razzouk Tattoo in Jerusalem’s Old City. Claiming to be in operation in some capacity since 1300 and run by the 27th generation of tattooists in the Razzouk family, the shop still attracts long lines of pilgrims during Easter festivities.

By the 19th century, tattooing was integral to the pilgrimage tradition in Jerusalem, to the point that even British nobility — the future King George V among them — were getting inked as a way to show their piety. At the same time, according to Lodder, some visitors complained about it being too commercialized.

“We have traveler accounts from the 1850s, where people are complaining about how dirty, busy and noisy it is,” Lodder says. “And in those descriptions, you have peddlers selling trinkets in a big list of things found objectionable, right alongside all the tattoo shops.”

They were descriptions that would be just as applicable to tourist strips in Bali or Cancun today. Or New York City’s Bowery neighborhood more than 100 years ago.

‘Flash’ in the Bowery

Starting around the 1880s, the Bowery in Lower Manhattan was a destination for a far less wholesome kind of pilgrimage.

“The Bowery was the place that you came to in New York City when you wanted to have fun, get in trouble, do some drinking, maybe do some fighting — and get tattooed,” says Michelle Myles, a co-owner of Daredevil Tattoo in New York’s Lower East Side. “Whether it was with tourists, sailors or New Yorkers, the Bowery just had this reputation as a playground for the working class.”

Myles, who also led tattoo history walking tours of the neighborhood before the coronavirus pandemic, says she often meets visitors from all over the world looking for vestiges of that past.

Myles and her business partner, Brad Fink, opened Daredevil Tattoo in 1997, the year tattooing was re-legalized in the city after being banned since 1961. Today, the shop doubles as a museum, with artifacts including a Thomas Edison electric pen that the first electric tattoo machines were based off; signage from Charles Wagner’s shop, where he was famous for giving tattoos for a quarter; and plenty of “flash” (tattoo designs) from the Bowery’s glory days.

As a tourist attraction itself, Daredevil has always received a steady stream of visitors looking to mark their trip to New York City. Oftentimes, they will pick a design “off the wall,” where the shop has vintage flash on display. Many will go for more predictable images of New York: a linework skyline of the city is a common request. But Myles says that what comes to symbolize New York City varies from person to person. Case in point? Her husband’s New York tattoo depicts a cockroach riding a rat.

A tradition for millennia

Of course, talking only about Europeans and their descendants in the United States traveling around the world and getting tattoos ignores large populations. Indigenous groups across all six inhabited continents have incorporated tattooing into their traditions for thousands of years. Tattoos told uplifting stories of cultural exchange, like shipwrecked sailors who married into Polynesian families and got the tattoos to mark their new allegiances, or French fur traders in North America who got tattoos from their indigenous colleagues. But there were far less harmonious interactions, too.

Krutak, for example, talks about an Inuit mother and daughter, both tattooed, who in the 1560s were taken from their home in the Arctic and sent to Belgium to be put on display in taverns. Some time later, a tattooed man from an island that is now part of the Philippines was taken to London to be shown off. He died of smallpox.

“Christian doctrine stated that to mark one’s skin was basically the mark of Cain,” Krutak says. “And so people were fascinated by these individuals.”

Long before the Western narrative of exoticism, some indigenous people were using tattoos to mark their own travels. The word “tattoo” itself comes from Polynesian languages. Krutak points to the Iban “bejalai” tradition in Borneo, for example, wherein young men were sent away from their communities as a rite of passage. As they explored the wilds and neighboring settlements, they received tattoos to mark their journeys.

Krutak believes that those young men were getting tattooed for reasons that aren’t so different from today’s travelers getting a permanent reminder of their journeys. “These guys were also taking a souvenir; a story to talk about, of this incredible journey,” Krutak says. “It’s something they can always share with their family and friends.”

The thick blackwork of Iban tattooing became popular around the world with non-Iban travelers in the 1970s, in part because of a few intrepid tattooers who went into Borneo to get tattooed by some of the last remaining masters of the tradition and learned the craft. With that, of course, came questions of appropriation. You only need to go to Venice Beach in Los Angeles for an afternoon to see a plethora of “tribal tattoos,” derivative of Polynesian traditions that go back thousands of years. So when is it OK to mark yourself with a souvenir that might intersect with the traditions of another culture?

The appropriation consideration

For Indian tattoo artist Moranngam Khaling, who goes by Mo Naga, it is a question that he grapples with daily. Mo Naga, who splits his time between Delhi and his home state of Manipur in the country’s northeast, has spent the past decade devoted to reviving the traditional tattooing practices of his people, the Naga, a group made up of more than 30 tribes spread across northeastern India and northwestern Myanmar. To do so, he has spent years traveling in the northeastern regions the Naga call home, talking to elders who are the last people to have the tattoos that were once commonplace.

After years of research, Mo Naga began offering tattoos that used many of the motifs and symbols of traditional Naga tattooing, something he dubbed “Neo-Naga.” Today, he says, more than 80% of his clients are members of the more than 30 tribes that make up the Naga, but travelers from abroad play a role in reviving a lost art and spreading awareness of its importance.

“I have a very tough job,” Mo Naga says over the phone from his home in Manipur. “But people who come to me are also very conscious about appropriation. They have no idea what they are going to get, and they want to be part of the revival. They know this is something important.”

Mo Naga says he gets regular requests on social media from people overseas asking for Naga designs they can use in their tattoos, but he always refuses. A big part of his process is the consultation, in which Mo Naga explains the history of Naga tattooing and the intricacies of the tradition to his client, and then they settle on an appropriate design.

“Sometimes that consultation can go on for one whole day — and the actual tattoo might just take an hour,” Mo Naga says.

Some off-limits tattoos, regardless of the tourist, include the tattoos that were once given to headhunters to mark their bravery in battle and those that symbolize family lineage. Instead, Mo Naga often opts for motifs that draw from the natural world, something relevant to both the Naga people and his clients from far away.

Mo Naga, who is in Manipur working on building a Tattoo Village where people would come to learn more about traditional Naga art, hopes that the travelers he tattoos today could lead to more interest in the at-risk tradition.

“When you have a Neo-Naga tattoo on your body, you become a cultural ambassador for my people: you will be telling a story about us to the world,” Mo Naga says. “You’ll be spreading the news of a dying tradition, and maybe you’ll get my people excited and interested in preserving and protecting it.”

Tracing the history of Europeans getting tattoos to mark trips to distant lands brings us much further back than British nobility visiting Japan or even sailors returning from the Pacific islands with the bold, black Polynesian tattoos that are still popular today.