Tattooed Britannia

In embracing tattoos, the people of Britain are returning to their ancient roots, argues Paul Lay.

Ancient and Modern: tattooed Britons model contemporary fashionsJoseph Banks, patron of the natural sciences and a president of the Royal Society, did not approve of tattoos. As a young man on Captain Cook’s first great voyage into the Pacific, he was baffled by the sight of the illustrated peoples of Polynesia. Musing on the reasons for their tattoos, he observed in 1769 that:

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.

Though tattoos had an aristocratic moment during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods – Jennie Churchill, Winston’s mother, had a snake etched on her wrist, which she would cover up discreetly with a diamond bracelet – they were long associated in the West with criminals and sailors. At the beginning of the 20th century around 90 per cent of men serving in the Royal Navy were tattooed, usually with symbols that marked – literally – a particular rite of passage: a turtle for having passed the Equator, an anchor for crossing the Atlantic, a dragon symbolising a posting on a China station. One could track the arc of a sailor’s service from his tattoos. Yet outside of ports and prisons the tattoo, in Britain at least, was a rare sighting.

That is not the case today. Walking down any British high street, one is as astonished as Banks would be by the ubiquity of the tattoo, to the point where unblemished skin is more an indicator of eccentricity and rebellion than an elaborately inked limb.

But the people of Britannia – the Pretanni, the ‘painted ones’ – are, whether they know it or not, returning to their roots. Marc Morris, the medieval historian, pointed this passage out to me from the 12th-century chronicler, William of Malmesbury, describing the locals on the eve of the Battle of Hastings:

The English at that time wore short garments, reaching to the mid-knee; they had their hair cropped, their beards shaven, their arms laden with gold bracelets, their skin adorned with tattooed designs. They were accustomed to eat till they became surfeited, and to drink till they were sick.

‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’, as their conquerors might have said. 

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today.