‘Engraved in the Flesh’: Tattoos in History

On the ground floor of the Surgeons Hall Museum in Edinburgh there is a glass jar with a piece of skin. On this skin is the tattoo of a lady. This tattoo is discolored and disfigured by chemicals and age. Any other information is purely speculative. We don’t know who created the tattoo, who bore it, for how long, or even what it originally looked like. It is difficult to even deduce where this tattoo might have been placed on a body.

“Think before you ink” is a common phrase that suggests that tattoos are forever. However when compared with other artistic mediums, tattoos have a literal expiry date. After death, second-hand sources are our only resource for reconstructing tattoos. Using resources at the National Library, we can trace several fascinating histories of tattoos, both in Scotland and internationally.

Some of these stories are uplifting, such as that in the beautiful diary of William Lithgow, who draws and recounts the tattoo he received on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1614 (shelfmark RB.s.2609). This studio had been tattooing pilgrims since the 14th century, and has continued its tradition to this day. Lithgow was less fortunate, being arrested by the Spanish Inquisition on the charges of being a British spy, and his tattoo being flayed from his arm during torture.

An artists illustration of Lithgow’s tattoo.

Other stories are more difficult. European perception of tattoos has been associated with criminality and ‘the other.’ In the 18th century William Bligh wrote a ‘List of Pirates’ after the mutiny on the HMS Bounty, describing mutineers by their identifying features and tattoos (shelfmark C5/NA.4/6). Later, pseudo-scientists such as Cesare Lombroso would write deeply racist tracts on the evidence of criminality present in tattoo artistry (shelfmark J.231.e).

Yet this perspective has been the exception, and not the norm. Since the mid 20th century there has been a renaissance in tattoo artistry, with a blend of aesthetics, techniques, and dialogue among fans and practitioners alike. Nowhere is this more apparent than at tattoo conventions, the first hosted in 1976 in Texas. Scotland would have to wait until 2011 for its first convention, but it has grown in scale every year since (shelfmark CB2/118).

Tattooing is one of the oldest and most widespread human art forms. Through the collections at the National Library it is possible to retell histories, deconstruct prejudices, and discover the art just under the surface.

‘Tattoos in History’ will be displayed throughout the month of March in the General Reading Room.