Very suspicious individuals

How all tattooed individuals became criminals, although they were only wearing tattoos

It wasn’t difficult to become a “suspicious individual” in the 19th century, when a receding forehead, protruding ears, or tattoos were often enough to justify condemnation. Austrian architect and cultural publicist Adolf Loos, in his polemic pamphlet Ornament und Verbrechen (Ornament and Crime), described one of the more common prejudices of the time: “Tattooed individuals who are not in prison are latent criminals or degenerate aris-tocrats. When a tattooed individual dies in freedom, he dies only a few years before he got the chance to commit murder.”

This was, historically speaking, a fairly new conclusion. After all, tattooing is a phenomenon that is intertwined with human history and which came about at the same time as the discovery of art. Traces of this cultural technique were found on ancient Chinese and Greenland mummies – even Ötzi, Europe’s oldest known human mummy, had tattoos. From the times of the Scythians, the early Christians, the Pacific Islanders and the Papua New Guineans, up to the 19th century European nobility, the Punks and Hippies of the 60s, and all the way to the currently nearly 10 % of Germans, tattoos have been present almost everywhere in the world.

Still, in the 19th century, in Europe, Loos was not alone. Indeed, At the same time, the emerging science of criminology also found tattoos a convincing marker for criminal behaviour. Thus, when researcher Cesare Lombroso was looking for the “born criminal” in Italian prisons, he determined that tattoos – very much like scars – were in fact signs of degeneration and disease. Although Lombroso’s theories of “born criminals” were controversial from the very beginning, they have popped up repeatedly, and assumptions about people with tattoos continued to linger.
It was not inevitable that Lombroso’s theories would become popular. Indeed, as a result of the discovery voyages of James Cook and other explorers in the 18th century, tattoos were already regaining some popularity in the European and American cultures, and experienced a virtual boom not only among the lower classes, but also with the nobility and the upper classes.

Still, the vast majority of the population remained uninterested in tattoos, which remained more common on the fringes of society for a long time. Until recently, the belief that tattooed individuals are bad for society, deviant, or mentally ill persisted and was reflected in some scientific studies. Nowadays, although tattooed individuals are no longer regarded as mentally ill, they are often seen as being more prone to engaging in risky behaviour such as unprotected sexual intercourse, sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, and “sensation seeking” activities.

However, this view is only partially reflected in reality: according to recent studies, about 10-20 % of people in Europe have tattoos. There are many reasons for this change, the most important being that tattoos have been a part of pop culture for several decades. Tattooing is not only a highly specialised craft, which continues to improve with better tools and colours, more hygienic equipment, and more information about the craft in general, but is also increasingly viewed as an art form.

Nonetheless, prejudices about tattoos have not disappeared entirely, although they are now aimed almost exclusively at the people who are heavily tattooed or those who wear tattoos that go beyond the “T-shirt barrier” – hence, the tattoos that cannot be concealed.

Be that as it may, tattoos are now widespread, and the reasons behind the choice to obtain them are diverse. In indigenous societies, a tattoo may show that its wearer is a full-fledged member of society. Tattoos can show status, influence, power, lineage, and affiliation to a group. They allowed for boundaries to be drawn. Tattoos were – and still are – a rite of passage. But tattoos are also helpful at a different level: when one feels beautiful and comfortable in one’s skin, one’s feeling of self-worth also improves. Whether one feels good because one wants to be rebellious, belong to a certain group or scene, immortalise personal memories on one’s body, emphasise one’s individuality, or turn one’s body into a work of art, the essential element of tattoos is the positive effect they have on the individual. Lombroso and his kind were wrong. Tattooed individuals are not “born criminals” or degenerates. They are as normal as anyone else.

Art on the skin

Why tattoos can be more than just decorations

It is very often said that tattoos are not art forms. For many, that is a fact, since tattoos are seen as mass productions that are often badly drawn, subject to fleeting trends, and often not particularly original. That much is true. What is also true is that tattoos always convey something about the wearer: their preferences, tastes, fears or aspirations, but also about their character. But is a tattoo really art? This idea is not as easy to unpack.

First of all, the medium is the skin. Skin is unusual. It changes. The life of the wearer is reflected on the skin: time spent in the sun, certain habits, but also age, illnesses and accidents can be visible on the body’s largest organ. Even our character and identity can be read on our skins. Skin is as individual as we humans are. The author Jean Améry once wrote in his essay “Beyond guilt and atonement” about trauma, trust and boundaries, by using skin as an extension of the self: “The boundaries of my body are also the boundaries of myself. My skin surface shields me against the external world: if I am to have trust, I must feel on it only what I want to feel.” The author also describes how the external shell – the skin – can be built to be protective armour. But skin is much more than an external shell. It protects and helps preserve one’s internal balance, and influences the body’s immune system and metabolism. For all these reasons, skin is immensely important for one’s identity and for other people’s perceptions of one’s self.

It is no wonder that artists such as tattooists are enthusiastic about skin as an art medium. Tattoos and art have more in common than enthusiasm: both fulfil a deep, funda-mental human need. To shape a body, to change it forever and to leave a mark – or even to overcome societal boundaries through art – one discovers that tattoos are a particularly suitable form of artistic expression. Several well-known artists have discovered the exceptional diversity of tattoos. Artists such as Wim Delvoye, Valie Export, Flatz or Santiago Sierra can illustrate, through this change in the skin’s surface, existential statements about power and powerlessness or about one’s own body.

The borderline between art and just rendering a service to a client is still fluid. Viennese tattoo artist Marian Merl also emphasises that “it starts as a service and can always turn into art.” An entire segment of tattooists practice tattooing as a craft, but a very special, artistic craft. Marian Merl says: “I don’t do all tattoos. One can spend ten years doing fashion tattoos, such as, lettering, stars, infinity symbols, and so on, and make a living from that. But, I would rather have less money and do what seems right to me.”

Some tattoo artists – like Marian Merl – use the bodies of their clients as a sort of canvas. Tattoos are fashion pieces and mass products. But they can also be works of art. New, distinct styles, technical skills and the artistic background of the tattoo artists set the boundaries of their art techniques. The clients themselves become art objects. They become unique elements that present both themselves and the work of the tattoo artists. Just like a unique piece of art, some tattoo artists even sign their work. Good tattoos can be unique, coveted pieces.

What makes tattoos special is that this form of art has an expiration date: with the death of the wearer dies the art object as well. Throughout the life of wearer, the tattoo is sub-jected to constant changes as the image of the skin is altered. The image – as the skin- grows old, stretches, fades or may be distorted by scars. If the wearer perceives the tat-too as a work of art or as something personally valuable now, in time, the tattoo can lose its material or even sentimental worth.

The temporal nature of tattoos shows how extraordinarily authentic the skin is as a perishable and ever changing canvas for artists. Skin reflects identity and how one chooses to decorate it gives more insight into one’s character and emotions, but also into the artistic vision of the tattoo creator. Beyond the personal worth that tattoos have to wearers, and their artistic value, what prevails is the emotion that tattoos bring to the people wearing them and to the artists who engrave them on their skin.

Dr. Igor Eberhard teaches at the Institute for Cultural and Social Anthropology of the University of Vienna. His research focuses on tattoos, skin studies, the history of medicine and the body, collections and collecting, criminality and deviance. He is currently re-searching the Viennese “Narrenturm” as part of a scholarship program. He is a member of the advisory board of the „Center For Tattoo History And Culture“, and member of the „European Society of Tattoo and Pigment Research” and coordinator of the „AG Hautbilder“.