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Skin Deep: a history of tattooing

Skin Deep: a history of tattooing

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

As the mutineers from the Bounty stood in the dock, the judge-admiral who would soon sentence them to hang scrutinised one item of evidence against them. It was a statement by their former captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, intended to verify the identity of each member of his miscreant crew, by listing all of their tattoos.

The list of stars, garters, hearts, flowers and three-legged Isle of Man emblems, and their locations on arms, legs, chests and buttocks, is reproduced in a new exhibition which opens at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich today.

Yet only 20 years before the Bounty mutineers' trial, tattooing - the word comes from the Tahitian "tatau" - was unheard of in Europe. Ancient cultures had tattooing traditions: the Egyptians tattooed for decoration; the Chinese for medical reasons, as a permanent marker of acupuncture points on the body. But until Captain Cook's ship, the Endeavour, reached the Polynesian islands in 1769, no modern westerner had seen a tattoo.

No wonder Cook's sailors were first confused and then amazed by the bold and intricate brown-black whorls and curlicues they saw on the islanders'

bodies: the muscle-accentuating stripes from hip to knee on the men; the faint dots on the women's hands and feet.

At first, they thought the islanders were wearing clothes, says the exhibition's curator Karin Buch-Nielsen, then they marvelled at their artistry. "Imagine the crew arriving in Tahiti, coming to this wonderful place of trees and mountains, and seeing these fabulous people." An outbreak of self-decoration followed among British sailors - despite strong disapproval from captains such as Bligh, who thought "primitive" habits led to a degenerate crew. First, the sailors asked the islanders to tattoo them; then they adapted the traditional methods and designs. Where the islanders used little wooden "rakes" with four or five teeth to pierce the skin - giving a deeper, more engraved impression than modern-day tattoos - the sailors used needles. Where the islanders used a dye of spit and soot, adding crushed nuts for colour, the sailors used spit and rum.

Accounts of this from Cook's own log, from his botanist's log and from subsequent South Seas travellers, including pictures of tattooing implements, some borrowed from the British Library and Oxford's British Tattoo History Museum, some from the museum's own collection, are all in the exhibition.

From the descriptions and pictures of the designs the sailors chose - some portrayed on the tattooed mannequins' torsos which cleverly bulge out of the walls throughout the exhibition - it is clear that the reasons why the sailors tattooed themselves were remarkably similar to the 1,000-year-old culture of Polynesian tattooing.

Both had aesthetic motives: the islanders reproduced the carved decorations on their houses and artefacts on their bodies; the sailors copied theirs from the wood and whalebone they traditionally whittled on board.

Tattooing - the pain and the permanence - marked a rite of passage: the islanders received their first tattoos at puberty; sailors tattooed a turtle on shipmates who crossed the Equator.

Superstition played a part: the islanders believed tattoos would protect them from evil spirits; the sailors tattooed their feet with pigs and cockerels believing this would help them one day to step safely back on to dry land. But, above all, tattooing was a symbol of individual and group identity. The islanders had tattoos showing membership of a tribe or clan, but added tattoos that, in effect, told their life story: a particular skill or heroism in battle. The sailors, too, chose tattoos marking who they were and what was important to them: the Union Jack; their native city; their ship; the names of their loved ones.

When they travelled home, they brought their newly acquired tattoos and skills with them. Soon it became common for every ship to have its own tattooist - and every port city, and every travelling fair, circus and freak show.

Despite - or perhaps because of - its low-life associations, the British upper classes also had a brief flirtation with tattooing in the late 19th century. Kings Edward VII and George V - both with naval connections - were tattooed; so were Winston Churchill and his mother. One writer described how tattooing was so popular among the aristocracy that at some dinner parties guests would show each other their tattoos between courses. But it was the maritime tradition that lasted. By the early 20th century, 90 per cent of sailors were tattooed. Elsewhere, tattooing dropped out of sight until its revival in the 1960s and 1970s.

The exhibition - advised by professional tattooists as well as anthropologists - shows contemporary designs and tattooing methods alongside pictures of tattooed celebrities (with a preponderance of Spice Girls) and video recordings of ordinary people talking about their tattoos.

They acquire them, it soon becomes clear, for similar reasons to the sailors and islanders: as decoration, as a rite of passage, for group or individual identity and to mark significant events.

The picture is pretty sanitised: museum staff decided on grounds of taste not to bring out of the collection the ship surgeon's account of the horrendous scars and infections suffered by one crew in the days before antibiotics.

To the possible disappointment of visiting children - but not their teachers - the exhibition points out that it is illegal to tattoo anyone under 18, even with their parents' permission. Today's teenagers may be as fascinated as Cook's crew with tattoos, says the museum's education officer Stuart Slade, but although they can try on "tattoo" masks, do puzzles and quizzes and even create tattoo designs during their visit, they should not expect to leave Greenwich more permanently decorated than when they arrived. "We had quite a few conversations about presenting tattoos to children and decided to put the accent on lines, shapes and patterns rather than on marking the body," he says.

Skin Deep: a history of tattooing runs until September 30. Entry is free. Details on www.nmm.ac.uk, tel: 020 8858 4422

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