London may be a modern-day tattoo mecca, but body art is no passing trend. Jesse Loncraine and Flannery Miller probe a tradition that dates back millennia and spans the globe.
What is your tribe? Most of us might not have an immediate answer, but our bodies — how we dress them, ink them, pierce them, sculpt them — often give us away. As much as setting us apart and celebrating our individuality, body art speaks to our intrinsic human yearning to be part of a group, connected to something larger than ourselves. And Londoners are no exception. Flash tattoo? Did you spend time in Soho in the early 1990s? Nose piercing? How was your trip to India? Cannon tattoo? See you at the Emirates. But don’t call these clichés; they’re much more.
You may have noticed a recent trend when it comes to piercings: the septum ring. A punk favourite of the 1980s, the septum piercing was a symbol of rebellion. Today, thanks to celebrities like Rihanna, Chloë Moretz and Zoë Kravitz, it is now one of five most popular piercings in the UK. And yet, while septum piercings are a fast growing trend here, its origins are to be found in tribes across the world. For the Niimíipuu people in the US, for example, the piercing was so common that, in the late 18th century, French fur traders essentially renamed the tribe Nez Perce (which means ‘nose pierced’ in French). Elsewhere, tribes from New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, to the Aztecs, Mayans and Incans use septum piercings as rites of passage and as a way to display warrior culture, as well as for beautification.
There is a beauty in scars, even those from wounds and surgeries. These marks communicate transformation through pain in the same way that tattoos and piercings do — who we were before, and who we are after. They tell a story about where we come from, what we have lived through and how we choose to go on living. The pain inherent in the process can be just as important as what remains on the body. Take the Pe’a, a traditional male tattoo prevalent in Tonga, Samoa and Tahiti, in which intricate designs stretching from torso to knee are imprinted on the body using a sharp ink-laden comb tapped into the flesh with a small mallet. Performed with great ritual and reverence, the process lasts from dawn till dusk (or until the pain is too great) everyday for three to four months. Once complete, the tafuga (tattoo artist) smashes a water vessel at the man’s feet in honour of the completion of the ritual and the man’s bravery. The next six months are for healing: washing the wounds in salt water, massaging, and keeping away infections (which are dangerous and common). Only after the wounds heal do the designs appear through the traumatised skin.
It is legend that the Pe’a was the inspiration for Britain’s tattoo culture. In the mid-18th century, British sea-farer James Cook voyaged to the Polynesian islands where the ta-tau (the etymological root of the English word) was already a refined and sacred art. The story goes that Cook returned to England accompanied by a tafuga named Ma’i. Along with them, Sir Joseph Banks, a member of the English aristocracy and Cook’s expedition botanist, returned bearing a tattoo in the Polynesian style. This in turn started a fad amongst his aristocratic peers. But this is all something of a myth. Cook’s voyages and Ma’i’s move to Europe marked a rise in popularity of an art already washing up on England’s shores with other sea-farers and explorers. Most British ports had a resident tattoo artist who would help to commemorate a life at sea. The British Navy bore the souvenirs of their journeys emblazoned on their bodies. Enlistment records would include a man’s tattoo designs, and a sailor’s ears would be pierced with gold jewellery to pay for a Christian burial, should he be found dead at sea.
The roots of Europe’s body art date back even farther than the rise of nautical tattoos. In the 14th century, Queen Isabella (aka the She-Wolf of France) introduced a neckline so plunging as to expose her nipple piercings and body jewellery. In the 16th century, wealthy Christians would embark on pilgrimages to the Holy Lands of Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth, returning with tattoos depicting religious iconography. And the Celts, who moved across Western Europe arriving in the British Isles around 400BC, celebrated body art with blue designs made with wood — usually in the form of spirals (symbolizing the many paths of life’s journey) or knots (connections made in life). The Picts, a tribal nation in northern Britain in the Late Iron Age, decorated their entire bodies with colourful images of animals, pricked and incised on their bodies using juices from local plants.
Still earlier examples of tattoos, body painting and scarification (scratching, etching, burning or superficially cutting designs or words into the skin) point to body art as a means to connect to supernatural worlds, protect from evil, and improve spiritual and physical health. In central Borneo, some designs were said to shield off dangerous spirits. And the Selk’nam men in Tierra del Fuego painted their bodies to transform themselves into spirits for initiation ceremonies. In aboriginal Australia, tattoos included designs that pointed to sacred places revealed in dreams. In Indian Ayurvedic traditions, the left nostril is associated with reproduction and pierced to lessen the pain of birth and menstruation. In the great plains of North America, the Sun Dance ceremony honours the Great Spirit through dance, feast, and spiritual journeying. The ceremony includes a test of the strength and stamina of young warriors: the Mandan tribe’s dancers pierce their chests with large metal hooks and suspend themselves by these piercings on poles for up to three or four days. The young men often lose consciousness, having visions and spirit walks as a result. Pain, for these men, is transformative and sacred. Early western colonisers, however, did not appreciate the practice and the Sun Dance ceremony was ‘outlawed’ in the late 19th century (part of a greater attempt to westernise Indians by forbidding them to practice their cultural and religious ceremonies). This is only one of many global examples of body art being ‘forbidden’ in mainstream culture. Japan tried but failed to outlaw tattooing in 1799, but in 1871 successfully banned the practice. At around the time tattooing became illegal, it was adopted by those who already opposed public moral codes and legal boundaries: the Yakuza. For the Yakuza, getting a tattoo was not only a painful way of proving courage and gang membership, it also marked them as ‘outlaws’. Though no longer illegal in Japan, tattoos are still largely kept out of sight due to this association with organised crime.
That same rebelliousness which arose in Japan in response to the outlawing of body art is evident in other pariah populations. El Salvadorian gang members use facial tattooing to assimilate. And in Russian Soviet prisons, full body and face tattooing became a mode of storytelling; a secret language used to assert allegiances but also to document a person’s life (and crimes) that might otherwise have been erased by the state’s dehumanising penal system.
When people with extensive tattooing enter (or re-enter) mainstream society, we become fascinated by such an extreme reimagining of the human body aesthetic, mesmerised by the complete commitment to an alternative way of looking, and simultaneously envious and judgemental of this act of rebellion. Take Rick Genest, aka ‘Zombie Boy,’ a model, fashion icon and muse to Lady Gaga who had his face and head tattooed to resemble a skull. There is a wittiness about his choice of tattoos; casting himself as a human skeleton was merely revealing something (quite literally) in all of us, while at the same time expressing a disdain for conformism and universal conceptions of beauty. When Genest died in August 2018, the media was quick to label his death a suicide. Loneliness and despair were assumed, projected onto ‘Zombie Boy’ by a society that couldn’t quite come to terms with his choices. It later emerged that there was no evidence of suicide. A similar story could be told about the life and death of another famously tattooed London rebel, that of ill-fated singer Amy Winehouse. It begs the uncomfortable question: How much do we impose our culturally held biases and standards onto other people’s bodies — marked or otherwise?
Take female bodies, forever the battleground for women’s rights. In early 20th century USA, a tattoo on a woman signified prostitution or lewd performance (such as a circus act, pin-up or peep-show girl). Maud Wagner, the original ‘tattooed lady’ is the most well-known figure of the era. At a time when tattoos were associated with a disgraced female body, women like Maud took to the circus. As a performer, acrobat and contortionist, she met the renowned tattoo artist, Gus Wagner, who still worked with old fashioned needle and ink. Maud was determined to learn the craft. The pair married, set up a tattoo parlour, and passed on the tradition to their daughter, Lotteva, who continued it into the 1980s. For many generations, having a tattoo as a woman was an act of rebellion, feminism and empowerment — sending a strong message to the world about who controls the female body.
Undoubtedly, all cultures have long and rich histories behind their bodily art traditions. There is layer upon layer of cultural heritage, home-grown and imported meaning; some political, others purely artistic, or even just trendy behind each tattoo and body piercing that finds its way onto our skin. But in today’s world few places exhibit this melting pot of global traditions better than London. Renowned tattoo artist, Guy Neutron of Sacred Gold in Coal Drops Yard, calls the city a tattoo mecca (others around the world include San Francisco, Shanghai and Israel). It’s true that in London, you’re never more than six feet away from a tat. Today we might associate body art with the quintessential east London hipster; and for much of the last century tattooed biceps were a stereotype of the ‘criminal class’, gangsters and hooligans. But like all great art, there are roots and meaning beyond the artist’s intention. Body art is probably the most profound and personal manifestation of cultural messaging: it is a statement about status and class; it displays accomplishments and tells stories; it encodes rites of passage, memory and transformation. Its permanence can indicate an authenticity of expression that few other art forms can boast.
This article first appeared in the winter 2019 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.