“Tattoos: The Legacy of Seafaring Heritage” on History Today

History Today released an article today entitled “Tattoos: The Legacy of Seafaring Heritage”. It’s an interesting look into the history of tattoos examines the appeal of the tattoo among high society.

“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.”



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