[Press & Publications] The Tattoo in European and American History

March 2000

No 64

Written on the Body

The Tattoo in European and American History

Edited by Jane Caplan

Publication: Reaktion Books, Thursday 20 April, Paperback Original

University of Leicester lecturer Dr Clare Anderson is a contributor to a fascinating new collection of essays on the history of the tattoo.

The current vogue for tattoos has reached unprecedented levels, with Girl Bands and pop stars displaying them prominently and publicly. Nowadays even Barbie dolls are pierced and tattooed. But while the tattoo retains a risqué, subversive element - anything above the neck is still strictly taboo - its shock value compared to previous eras has largely faded. Most people sporting tattoos today would be unaware of the tattoo's history and the meanings that have been ascribed to it at different periods in Europe and America.

Written on the Body is the first history of the tattoo in the West from antiquity to the present; it demonstrates that there is, in fact, a rich and fascinating history to be discovered.

Clare Anderson, of the Department of Economic and Social History, works on the penal tattooing of convicts in India during the colonial era. Her chapter examines the nature of the practice and the circumstances surrounding its abolition.

The word 'tattow' was first introduced into the English language in 1769 by Captain James Cook, who was describing a practice he had observed in Tahiti. While most often associated with sailors, soldiers, criminals and deviants who were either well-travelled or had a lot of time on their hands, the tattoo was also used by aristocrats who would engrave an emblem on themselves, their possessions and their serfs.

At other times, slaves and early Christians have been branded or 'stigmatised' (stigma deriving from the Greek 'to prick') and both high-born women and prostitutes were adorned in this way. In the nineteenth century, highly-tattooed men and women (often with implausible, exotic histories) were courted in high society and scientific and anthropological circles before being taken up by showmen and freak-shows, where they were a big draw, not least for their erotic value.

In this groundbreaking collection of essays, the tattoo's history emerges as broken and episodic, a haunting presence on Europe's margins that has often been regarded as the eruption of something alien and uncanny, something that is not - or should not be - at home in Western culture.

Jane Caplan was born in England and is Marjorie Walter Goodhart Professor of European History at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania. She is editor and co-editor of several books, including Documenting Individual Identity (forthcoming).

Jane Caplan will be visiting the UK for publication from 11-17 April and will be available for interview. There will be a launch for the book at Into You Tattoo Shop, EC1, which is owned by Alex Binnie - one of the featured tattoo artists - on Thursday 13 April.

For further information please contact Maria Kilcoyne, Publicity Manager, on 0171 404 9930.

Clare Anderson can be contacted on 0116 252 2784.

Please use the correct title University of Leicester in any report.

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Last updated: 24 March 2000 16:17
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