Tattoos: The Legacy of a Seafaring Heritage

From Captain Cook to playboy Prince Bertie, Tessa Dunlop examines the appeal of the tattoo among high society.

Tattooed Maori chief Tukukino, New Zealand, c. 1880
Tattooed Maori chief Tukukino, New Zealand, c. 1880

A tattoo: would you? According to recent research the answer is very possibly, yes. One fifth of contemporary British adults have at some point been ‘inked’. Once considered the preserve of a variety of subcultures – criminals, sailors, prostitutes, bikers – tattooing is now mainstream. Samantha Cameron has one (a discreet dolphin below the ankle), as does the actress Charlize Theron (a fish on her ankle and a flower on her foot). Angelia Jolie has too many to count, ditto David Beckham (including his wife Victoria’s name misspelt in Hindi).

However, while today’s press get excited about every new indelible etching, this fetish for tattooing among society’s elite is not new. Indeed 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.

Certainly the tattoo’s modern origins were exotic, if a little painful:

What can be sufficient inducement to suffer so much pain is difficult to say; not one Indian (though I have asked hundreds) would ever give me the least reason for it.

In 1769 the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, who served as botanist on Captain Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific, became the first European to speculate as to the motive for tattooing among the native Polynesians he encountered. The answer eluded him, but he concluded:

… possibly superstition may have something to do with it. Nothing else in my opinion could be a sufficient cause for so apparently absurd a custom.

While Banks branded the natives’ intricate, inky patterns ‘absurd,’ this bewilderment did not prohibit his detailed, if squeamish, accounts of how the tattooing effect was achieved. In August of 1769 he noted that the instruments used were made of bone and shell and cut into sharp teeth, penetrating the skin ‘so deep that every stroke is followed by a small quantity of blood’. It is no coincidence that some of the first references to ‘tattooed savages’ in England appeared in the wake of Cook’s return from the South Pacific; the word ‘tattoo’ coming from the onomatopoeic Tahitian verb tatau, meaning ‘to mark’.

Nor did the more bloody aspect of this art form deter members of Cook’s crew from a little experimentation. 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. An appreciation of the intricate skill involved in native tattooing was widespread; Mr Earle, the draughtsman on board Darwin’s HMS Beagle, covered his cartouche-box with a chieftain’s skin, noting in his diary:

… it was most gratifying to behold the respect these savages pay to the fine arts.

While the precarious existence of old sea dogs was a far cry from English high society, the latter didn’t miss out. In 1774 when Banks returned home he brought with him the ultimate souvenir: a tattooed Polynesian warrior named Omai. He was an overnight sensation. Introduced to George III and taken to the state opening of Parliament, Omai with his painted face gave fad-obsessed upper-class London something new to get excited about.

However it was a while before the tattooing craze caught on. That came a little later when Prince Bertie (later Edward VII) helped ignite the fashion for body art among the British upper classes. The playboy prince was first tattooed in 1862 in the Holy Land with the ‘Jerusalem Cross’ design. Sources suggest he didn’t stop at one and his sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York (later King George V), both kept up the family tradition while serving overseas in the Royal Navy. The trend spread throughout Europe’s royal houses.

Indeed between 1870 and 1890 larger intricate tattoos were very much the preserve of the upper classes – even women joined in. The New York Times in 1879 noted:

… that in England it is regarded as a customary and proper thing to tattoo the youthful feminine leg.

Members of the social elite gathered in drawing rooms to disrobe partially and show off their expensive and painfully acquired body art. Skilled artists were hard to find. Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie had a dainty snake etched strategically on her wrist; she could cover it up with a diamond bracelet. Rumour has it that her son followed suit with an anchor on his forearm. London salons charged a fortune, but for some money was no object – one Scottish baron had Constable’s Mrs Pelham tattooed on his chest at a cost of a staggering 24 guineas.

Much changed, however, with the introduction of mechanisation: the manual tapping technique was swapped for the modern twin-coil electro-magnetic tattoo needle patented in 1891 by Samuel O’Reilly, an Irish-American tattooist working out of a barber’s shop in New York. Before long, tattooing fell from grace as costs lowered and parlours sprung up in the sleazier parts of towns. The upper classes started to cover up their body art for fear of being considered common and in 1926 Vanity Fair confidently claimed that:

…tattooing has passed from the savage to the sailor, from the sailor to the landsman. It has since passed through the entire social stratum.

Upper-class fads aside, various minority cultures came to dominate tattooing trends. Many sailors remained loyal to this art form as a mark of travel, proof of identity, sense of belonging and manliness (it was still painful). Soldiers followed suit. Meanwhile, from the early 1800s, the other minority culture associated with tattooing was the criminal underclass. It is no coincidence that Sherlock Holmes’ ability to recognise a tattoo played an important part in his earliest recorded case. This very much tied in with the criminology of the time: although partly middle-class projection, the high incidence of tattooing among prisoners was seen as outward evidence of their criminality. ‘Born to be hanged’ was not an uncommon inscription. That said, the association between tattoos and ne’er do wells is almost certainly overstated.

Most body art scholars seem to agree that it wasn’t until the 1970s that tattoos once again became widely fashionable and they appear to have grown in popularity ever since. Little more than a decade ago there were 300 tattoo parlours in Britain; now there are over 1,500. Celebrity fuelled, the tattoo has become the ultimate high street fashion accessory. And while a fine art graduate is as likely as an old deck-hand to become a professional tattooist, many of the traditional naval symbols remain as popular as ever: old-style swallows, ships and abandoned sweethearts are undergoing a resurgence. All modern tattooists are missing is the royal seal of approval from a contemporary playboy prince.

With thanks to Matt Lodder for his additional research on this article

Tessa Dunlop is a presenter of the new BBC series, Coast. Her Memoir, To Romania with Love, is published by Quartet Books.

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