Monday, May 16, 2011

The Tattooed Lady: A History by Amelia Klem Osterud

This is a fascinating book.  Combining thorough research with lots of wonderful historical photos, it delves into the history of tattooing, telling us that tattooing was a tradition that survived from early tribal and pagan times and was adapted by European peasants to their new Christian reality.

Modern European tattooing doesn't reappear until the fifteenth century, when Christian crusaders began arriving home from Jerusalem with symbolic tattoos, and then again in the seventeenth century, in the form of mystical alchemist marks and Christian symbols worn as souvenirs of a pilgrim's visit to Jerusalem.

The Greeks learned how to tattoo from their neighbors, the Tracians, who lived in what is now Turkey.  Tracians used tattoos to indicate higher cultural status, and tattooed Thracian women were depicted on Greek vases.  The Greeks used it to permanently mark Greek slaves.

The Romans picked it up from the Greeks and used it until Emperor Constantine banned penal tattooing in 316.  The Picts, an ancient matrilineal pre-Celtic tribe of the British Isles, were notorious for tattooing, especially among women.

The custom spread as sailors learned to tattoo each other and tattoo shops began to spring up in large cities and ports on both sides of the Atlantic during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, attracting men and women interested in putting an indelible mark on their bodies.  Perhaps the poorer residents of cities and ports yearning to tap into some tribal yearning wanted to decorate their skin.

In any case, as with other fads taken from the working class, by the end of the nineteenth century the stylish upper classes of the U.S. and England had started to get tattoos.  In addition to the sailors, gentlemen officers and princes of European nations had begun visiting places in the Far East.  When these officers returned to their upper crust lives, the permanent marks were seen as racy and daring, and they inspired other stylish individuals to acquire tattoos.  Even upper-class women participated.  Lady Randolph Churchill, Windston Churchill's mother, became the most famous of these well-bred tattooed ladies.  According to popular lore, she had a snake tattooed around her wrist, which she could hide by wearing a bracelet. 

But the heart of the book concentrates on a gutsy group of women (including Irene Woodward, Nora Hildebrandt, and Artoria Gibbons) who covered their bodies in tattoos and traveled the country performing nearly nude for all to see (at a time when it was scandalous to show even a bit of ankle!).  Though they were the precursors of a cultural movement (almost a quarter of Americans now have tattoos), little has been known of their real lives, until now.

Nora Hildebrandt

Tattooed women were accused by many of being exhibitionists, desperate, oversexed women who needed men to look at their bare tatooed limbs as some kind of kink.  However, placed in the historical context of tattooing, they were simply taking the next step.  They saw a need, and they filled it.

Tattoos became more mainstream throughout the 1980s, and with the explosion of the early 1990s grunge/alternative music style, tattoos were dubbed by some as "the nose job of the '90s".  Thirty-six percent of Americans age 25-29 and 28% of those age 30-39 sport tattoos.  So, tattooed women have gone from being unique and exotic spectacles to being fairly common in just over a hundred years.  These women helped bring tattooing out of the realm of the sideshow and put it into everyday life.  Whether you already have a tattoo or whether you would never even consider getting one, this is a most informative and enthralling book. 


Deborah Lawrenson said...

Well, I never knew that Lady Randolph Churchill had a tattoo! Quite shocking ;P

KY Warrior Librarian said...

That was news to me too; just one small surprise in a book full of wonders.

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