Written on the Body

By Vaughan Allen, 10 July 2000

reviewed by Vaughan Allen

Finally, it appears, the tattoo and piercing craze is faltering. Someone like minor Royal Zara Phillips getting, and then removing, a tongue stud (her boyfriend, apparently, objected to it) symbolises the degree to which body modification has lost its prime asset — ‘outsider chic’.

But the position of tattooing within society is constantly being re-assessed. According to the essays in the excellent Written on the Body, the standard history of the form — which sees Cook bringing tattooing back from the South Seas in the late eighteenth century — belies a long and tortuous history of production and interpretation. Cook certainly seems to have brought back the name ‘tatu’, but westerners had pricked and marked their skins for religious, tribal or personal reasons for centuries prior to his ‘discovery’ of the ‘noble’, decorated, savage. Even the term ‘stigmata’, argue Jones and Gustafson in their respective essays, was more likely attached to tattoos than to para-psychical phenomena.

However, Caplan’s book does not mark out a single, simple, history. In fact, the recent attempts of the new age/body art crowd to map out a linear history for the form is shown up to be one of many creation myths altered to suit particular perceptions and benefit particular parties.

What Written on the Body demonstrates is the historically and socially determined nature of tattooing’s interpretation. By resurrecting forgotten tales of the use of the tattoo in early Christian Europe, in the early modern era and among Renaissance astrologers, as well as the more familiar usage in prisons and side-shows, it delineates a multi-layered, non-linear history.

Tattooing has not always been associated with an underclass or outsider grouping, but has frequently changed its position and meaning in society. It is about imposing personal will on the surface of the skin, tracing the impact of one’s linear existence and choosing the groups with which one associates. Or even, if a very minor tabloid icon, choosing to play out a few moments of rebellion before submitting to one’s man.

Vaughan Allen <Vaughan.Allen AT>

Written on the Body/ ed. Jane Caplan/ Reaktion Books / £17-95 RRP / ISBN 1-86189-062-1