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The History of Tattoos

Posted by Josh Rothman  June 5, 2012 07:00 AM

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Tessa Dunlop summarizes the history of the tattoo for History Today -- and it is weirder than you might imagine. I, for one, think of longshoremen and Marines when I think of tattoos. In fact, "over a hundred years ago tattooing was a novel pastime among the very wealthy in London’s most fashionable circles: an artistic reminder of the nation’s imperial reach."

Tatoos, of course, have existed all around the world for thousands of years. But they first entered Western consciousness in the eighteenth century, during Captain Cook's voyage to Polynesia:

His men were among the first Europeans to acquire Polynesian tattoos, setting a trend that eventually spread through the Royal Navy. By the early 19th century 90 per cent of sailors sported a tattoo as a souvenir of their distant travels, often practising the technique onboard ship. A unique iconography emerged: a turtle signalled that its bearer had crossed the equator, an anchor the Atlantic, a dragon for those who had served on a China station. The more artistic among the sailors later retired to establish the first tattoo parlours in Europe’s port cities and to this day tattooing remains the only form of Polynesian art widely adopted by westerners.

The tattoo went upscale in 1862, when Prince Bertie -- later Edward VII -- visited the Holy Land and got a tattoo of the Jerusalem Cross. Fast forward a few years, and "members of the social elite gathered in drawing rooms to disrobe partially and show off their expensive and painfully acquired body art." For the rest of the story, visit History Today.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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