Tattoos – a quick social history

I went with someone to go and get a tattoo done the other day. And no, before you ask, it wasn’t on me! I actually found the process quite interesting, much nicer than having a blood test or an injection, no doubt because the environment is much nicer…

Anyway, while there I got talking to the tattooist. Much like taxi drivers and barmen, they see all sorts and hear all sorts. And we got onto the subject of how tattoos are perceived by society. We came to the conclusion that although tattoos have gone a lot more mainstream nowadays – thanks to people like David Beckham, Robbie Williams et al – there is still a stigma attached to them. People still assume that if you have a tattoo, then you must be either a criminal, a sailor, a biker or a prostitute.

Maybe it’s because I come from Portsmouth – the home of the Royal Navy – or that I’ve got a lot of friends into heavy metal, but I’ve never understood the fuss about tattoos. Someone once described it to me thus… some people go out and buy a painting and hang it on the wall. Some people, however, like to wear the ‘painting’ on them. It’s a form of expression, albeit a very commited and lasting one. And gone are the days when the black ink turned manky and green – you can see some really impressive tattoos now, it really is an artform.

It’s not surprising that Royal Navy sailors picked up the art of tattoing. It has been going on in some parts of the world for thousands of years, in particular some of the Pacific Islands. And on their travels, sailors picked up these kind of customs and made them their own. How else do we think that curry was eaten in Portsmouth, well before Indian restaurants? I would argue that in actual fact, tattoos have been part of the mainstream in Portsmouth society for hundreds of years. Many young men in Portsmouth would have had tattoos, in fact it was probably the norm, especially for sailors. And what Portsmouth’s families don’t have a sailor or two down the line somewhere? Ironically my great-grandfather, Thomas Daly, had more tattoos than any of his descendants, to my knowledge. According to his service record he sported a cross on his right forearm and dots on his left. George Cross winner Reg Ellingworth had tattoos on both arms. Colour Sergeant Frederick Bird of the Royal Marines had two dots on his left forearm. Chief Yeoman of Signals George Pankhurst had an interesting tattoo on his right arm – a bird on a branch. Apparently there were complex conventions about what tattoos represented what in the Navy – often where a person had served or what they had done.

A few years ago the Royal Naval Museum held an exhibition on the naval history of tattoos. Sadly I did not get to see it, but I’m sure it must have been pretty interesting. I’ve read plenty of stories about how young sailors would get taken to a tattooist by their ‘sea-daddy’ whilst on a run ashore, not having any choice in the matter. No less a person than King George V was tattooed in this manner – although these were never seen in public, the Steven Poliakoff drama the Lost Prince alludes to them.

So in conclusion, I think the stigma about tattoos is completely unwarranted. They have been a part of life on earth for thousands of years. Having a tattoo does not make anyone less of a person. If anything, I think that judging someone for something so trivial is, subconciously, a way of putting yourself on a pedestal by putting them down. Very sad, and very 19th Century.



Filed under Local History, Navy, social history, Uncategorized

25 responses to “Tattoos – a quick social history

  1. John Erickson

    I have no problem with tattoos, but you do have to consider the future. As one of our “redneck” comedians put it, “When you’re 20 that little hummingbird on your arm is cute. When you’re 60, that hummingbird looks like a buzzard coming to eat you.”
    Nothing against folks with tats, but I’ll keep my art on the walls, thank you!

    • James Daly

      Thats a very good point John! You only have to look at some of the monstrosities out there to see how tattoos can go very wrong, and what looks cool when you’re 20 isn’t quite so hot when time and gravity have taken effect!

  2. Edna Cahill

    I was always given to understand that the early days of tattooing followed a pattern, sometimes for area, sometimes for family, and they were used, Like aran individual pattern sweaters, for identification.


    • James Daly

      Hi Edna, I think thats the case. Particularly with the Pacific Islands where getting tattooed is part of the growing up process, and the transition from boyhood to adulthood.

      As for the Royal Navy, I gather that many tattoos represented particular service – a turtle for crossing the equator, an anchor for crossing the atlantic, or a dragon for serving in China.

  3. I think it all depends on the design of the Tattoo and where it is situated.

    A good example would be those that Amy Winehouse had.
    They never looked nice to me…

    • James Daly

      I agree Ray. Amy Winehouse’s were definitely what I would call fashion tattoos, which really aren’t a good idea, as fashion trends change. Whereas you can change your wardrobe, you can’t change your skin. I see so many people wandering round with random, meaningless tattoos, and i wonder what they are going to do when they’ve grown out of that particular phase…

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  6. Having a tattoo is one way of expressing someone’s individuality. This is a form of art that we should be proud of or at least try to understand. Having this on one’s body does not mean that he/she is a bad person for this is already accepted in society as a form of body art.

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