Move over Angelina Jolie: The secret British history of tattoos

Angelina Jolie pictured with her latest inking , and Britain's first female tattoo artist Jessie Knight with her family crest 
Angelina Jolie pictured with her latest inking , and Britain's first female tattoo artist Jessie Knight with her family crest  Credit: Splash News and Pictures

In July 1938, an article in American Weekly proclaimed that one of Britain’s most celebrated political hostesses, “the stately Marchioness of Londonderry” had been spotted at a committee of the War Office bearing the most startling of accessories. Rising skirts and the onset of transparent hose had revealed a secret that Lady Edith had managed to conceal for four decades: tattoos acquired on her honeymoon back in the “gay Nineties”.  

This bastion of the establishment, then aged almost 60, boasted “a rampant British lion…in tea rose pink” on one leg, and “a baby blue coat of arms and a star, just above a strikingly life-like green garter snake” on the other. 

If one were searching for an example to counter the stereotype that tattoos have traditionally been the preserve of seamen, ruffians and ne’er do wells, one would not have to look much further. 

Now, almost 80 years later, Lady Edith’s legs feature in Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed, a groundbreaking exhibition opening at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, in Falmouth, this week. 

Tattooing is as old as humanity itself, a practice common to all classes, both genders, and every single cultureDr Lodder

In what is a departure for the museum – indeed, any museum – 400 or so artefacts will tell the story of British tattooing from its origins among sixteenth century pilgrims, via the many Victorian artists who claimed to have decorated royalty, to the rite-of-passage daubings of today’s “gap yah” teenagers. 

What emerges is no less than a mass, mobile art form through which the history of Britain’s larger cultural shifts can be observed. Curator Dr Matt Lodder, lecturer in Contemporary Art History at the University of Essex, argues: “Tattooingreveals the tastes not of elite institutions, but the images that have resonated with people over the centuries - the popular temperature, if you like.”

He cautions against the misconception that inking constitutes a recent trend - something you might be forgiven for thinking, given the sheer number of celebrity devotees.

Rihanna, David Beckham, Cara Delevingne, Harry Styles and Cheryl (remember those huge roses covering her entier backside?) have all deployed their innumerable inkings to semaphore a series of profound and not-so profound messages. At the weekend, images emerged of Angelia Jolie getting her most recent tattoo, in February last year - a series of geometric symbols meant to bind her to then-husband Brad Pitt.

Lady Londonderry's tattooed legs Credit: Courtesy of Rambo's Tattoo Museum, Manchester

“Throughout the history of tattooing, there are constant newspaper headlines crying: ‘Look! How new! Tattoos are not just for sailors,’ when that’s always been the case,” says Dr Lodder. “Tattooing is as old as humanity itself, a practice common to all classes, both genders, and every single culture.” 

The oldest preserved inkings date back to 3,300BC and belong to Otzi [UMLAUT ON O], the mummified Tyrolean Iceman discovered in 1991. He has 61 tattoos - mostly lines and crosses - across his body, thought to have been created by rubbing charcoal into incisions in the skin.

However, archeological evidence suggests that the custom may extend back to Neolithic times. Roman sources refer to ancient Britons as a “fearsome race of tattooed warriors” - an image that became popular with early seventeenth century antiquarians, despite lack of evidence.

The accepted notion that tattoos came to Britain via Captain Cook, following his late eighteenth century trips to Polynesia, is also myth. Cook’s adventures did introduce the word “tattoo” in its modern meaning, but not the act itself. Nor were these markings the preserve of sailors.  

Unsurprisingly, every tattooist in London claimed to be the artist who had adorned the royals and other British bluebloods

As Dr Lodder points out in his forthcoming book, the beginning of the tattoo as a commodity can be traced back to seventeenth century pilgrims, who acquired images of Christ and holy crosses, often to record their visits to the Holy Land. Consequently, the first tattooed Britons in the history books were wealthy, well-to-do travellers, whose designs - rather than holding a sense of shock or scandal - were intended as bodily evidence of their religious beliefs. 

Eighteenth century accounts recall hearts, names, dates, trade associations, and religious symbols painted onto Britons of all backgrounds.Only with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was the association established with a rush of naval imagery. And if tattoos became connected with criminality, it was only because prison records were so comprehensive in recording the physical quirks of inmates (they also began to be mentioned during court cases, as identifying marks).  

The advent of machine inking, together with rise of Japonism, produced the first professional tattoo shops in the 1880s. The opening of Japan to the West had lead to a surge of interest in its culture, and – like Lady Londonderry - tourists of both genders returned home bearing evidence of its aesthetic. As toffs acquired ink mementoes abroad, so the middle classes were thrilled to follow suit back home, and newspapers began printing DIY recipes for their removal, including various unwise (and ineffective) solutions of acids.

Cara Delevingne has a lion tattooed on her finger Credit: Blitz Pictures/REX Shutterstock 

In 1881, the future King George V and his brother acquired such markings. Bertie opted for St. George and the dragon; his sibling a stork. A (false) rumour circulated that these designs had been etched on their faces. Queen Victoria was not amused. Later, George followed his father, King Edward VII, in acquiring an image of Jerusalem, the latter having been tattooed on a trip there in 1861. 

Unsurprisingly, every tattooist in London claimed to be the artist who had adorned the royals and other British bluebloods via advertisements placed in The Tatler, Sporting Times, and Badminton Magazine.  

During the First World War, the upper classes lost interest in elaborate, oriental designs, while, the mass market exploded in a pageant of patriotism. Self-appointed “king of tattooists” George Burchett set up shop near Waterloo station, for the convenience of Tommies and their sweethearts. A Punch cartoon satirised ladies having one regimental symbol transformed into another as their affections were transferred. But by the Thirties, Burchett was inking images of film stars and Disney characters, before war once again took hold.

Ultimately, the history of the British tattoo is the history of British life. It tells us what we’re concerned about, scared of, or thrilled byDr Lodder

Following its association with punks and skinheads in the Seventies and Eighties, the tattoo returned to being a more gentrified phenomenon in the Nineties, as celebrities posed in ever more revealing outfits, hoping their inkings might signify individuality. Popularity increased on account of this greater visibility to the point where, today, one in five adults, and one in three young people boast some sort of tattoo - with men and women equally embellished.

It might be a worldwide phenomenon but the British, says Dr Lodder, have always enjoyed a particular affinity with the craft. 

“British tattoos have been extremely influential,” he notes. “As a colonial power, our tattooing had a particular influence, while London is a place of cosmopolitan cultural exchange. Ultimately, the history of the British tattoo is the history of British life. It tells us what we’re concerned about, what we’re scared of, what we’re thrilled by.” 

So should your teenager come home with a scabrous arm, hoping to shock? You can tell them that they’ve got nothing on the Victorians. 

Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed runs between March 17, 2017 and January 2018 at the National Maritime Museum, Cornwall.

 

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