The Secret Language of Tattoos
Updated: May 4
By Mary Anne Mushatt, author of For The Deepest Love
Spoiler alert: A tattoo in For the Deepest Love plays a role in untangling a mystery near the heart of the story. My character adorns his body with a design as an offering, an ode to a clandestine group he hopes will embrace him.
Tattoos have been decorated for medicinal, religious, and tribal reasons since at least Neolithic times, as evidenced by mummified preserved skins, ancient art, and the archaeological record. The oldest discovery of tattooed human skin to date is found on the mummified body of Ötzi the Iceman, dating between 3400 and 3100 BC. The tattoos on this Bronze Age man included a cross on the inside of the left knee, six straight lines above the kidneys, and a series of parallel lines on the ankles.
Tattoos ranged across the ancient world. For the Britons, Greeks and Egyptians, tattoos denoted high status, while for China’s Han Dynasty, tattoos were imprinted only on criminals. Yet for them all, the primary function was to denote belonging--either to a religious sect/order, political or social caste--or to identify the unacceptable. Soldiers and slaves were forcibly tattooed and in France and America, tattooing was popular among seamen--as a means to identify themselves (or their bodies).
As far back as the 16th century, sailors have been decorating their bodies with ink from gunpowder and urine during long sea voyages. By the 1700s, perhaps a quarter of the British and American navies had body art, sometimes even imbuing them, like many indigenousness cultures, with mystical powers. It is said that getting a pig and a rooster on one’s feet prevents drowning in a sea wreck, while an anchor signified a successful voyage across the Atlantic.
In the absence of a diploma (which could be lost or forged), French and German craftsmen tattooed the insignia of their profession on their biceps, which enabled them to find work throughout Europe, regardless of their ability to speak the language of the country they were in. A carpenter might display a plane and pliers, while a butcher could have a bull's head on crossed knives.
It is this association of tattoos with specific groups, be they military, religious or social, that caught my attention when I was looking for ways to link one of my characters with a quasi-underground, the Oligarchs. Using a variation of their official marker, this character had it tattooed onto his arm to express his devotion to their cause.
By the time of my Regency-set story, many societies saw tattoos as taboo. The Catholic Church, for example, associated tattoos with superstition and paganism; physicians opposed tattooing on medical grounds. Knowledge of how infections spread weren't yet known and tattoo artists routinely used the same needles on more than one customer without cleaning them. They mixed their ink in clamshells and diluted it with saliva. It was normal to clean off a fresh tattoo with saliva, tobacco juice or urine. Doctors wrote of cases they had seen, such as the 1837 death of a young woman from an infection related to a tattoo, and in 1853, the first case in which syphilis was transmitted by tattooing. M.Hutin wrote: “A soldier allowed himself to be tattooed by a man who was suffering from syphilis and who had chancres on his lips. The soldier was a virgin and perfectly healthy, and the tattooer only punctured his arm a few times. The Chinese ink used by the tattooer had dried up in a shell and several times the tattooer moistened his needles by spitting on them and diluted the ink with his saliva. In this way he inoculated the soldier with syphilis.”
Despite the risks, tattoos were not unknown on European royals. After the death of England’s King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, his tattoos were used to identify his body. In 1862, while visiting the Holy Land, Albert, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, had a Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his arm. When his sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York (later King George V), visited Japan in 1882 they both had dragons tattooed on their arms. Among the Russian royal family, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Nicholas II all bore tattoos.
In the 19th century, Britain had a practice of forcible tattooing for purposes of official identification as well as a flourishing culture of voluntarily acquired tattoos. Early in the 18th century, tattooing replaced the branding used for disciplinary purposes in the army, to identify deserters with ‘D’ and so-called bad characters--soldiers who were so disruptive that they had to be discharged, and the army wanted to be able to identify and exclude them if they tried to re-enlist--with ‘BC’. When these practices were abolished in 1869, witnesses emphasized that tattooing as such was not seen as dishonorable in the army; they compared tattooing to vaccination and pointed out that soldiers and sailors voluntarily got tattoos for
Even though I am not a fan of tattoos, I think they can be beautiful, but the thought of enduring 3,000 needle pricks per minute makes me squeamish, or should I say missish. That said, I have seen some amazing and beautiful tattoos and I admire people who do have tattoos for both enduring going under the needle and for committing to a symbol or design they feel they could live with.