Decorative language of the body beautiful

Written on the Body, The Tattoo in European and American History, Edited by Jane Caplan,(Reaktion Books, £17.95)
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The Independent Culture

Tattoos are everywhere these days. They are flaunted by supermodels and secretaries alike. They adorn magazine covers and album sleeves. They are advertised as "body art" in lavish coffee-table volumes. Children can buy stick-on tattoos that wash off and even cartoon characters wear them.

Tattoos are everywhere these days. They are flaunted by supermodels and secretaries alike. They adorn magazine covers and album sleeves. They are advertised as "body art" in lavish coffee-table volumes. Children can buy stick-on tattoos that wash off and even cartoon characters wear them.

And yet tattoos have lost little of their power to shock. As one contributor to this collection of essays, Mark Gustafson, puts it, "many people still react to tattoos in the same way they might to a poke in the eye with a sharp stick". Familiarity has not deprived tattoos of their potent aura of subversion and exoticism. There is, too, something unsettling about the ambiguous physical space they occupy: simultaneously visible on the surface of the skin, and trapped beneath it. Tattoos have an uncanny ability to provoke a double reaction. They affront and delight in equal measure.

A good deal of scholarly attention has been paid to the significance of tattooing in Eastern and South Pacific cultures. But Written on the Body claims to be the first book to give a full account of the phenomenon in the West. Each of the 14 essays explores a different aspect of the history and associations of the tattoo in Europe and America, from ancient Greece to the present day.

The contents are eclectic. There are essays on the tattooing practices of Greeks and Romans, insular Celts and Christian pilgrims, Renaissance magicians and Russian gangsters, British convicts and American fairground entertainers, Victorian aristocrats and postmodern fashion victims.

Tattoos, it seems, have never been the preserve of any one class or social group. Their appeal has always been felt across the board. Perhaps most influential in forming Western perceptions of the tattoo were the great voyages of discovery in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1769, Captain James Cook described the tattooing practices he had witnessed on his first circumnavigation of the globe. "Both sexes paint their bodys, tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the colour of black under their skins, in such as manner as to be indelible."

Among the specimens of curious flora and fauna that Cook and his crew brought back to England was a Tahitian islander who became known as Omai. The unfortunate Omai was exhibited for the amusement of the London smart set. In a full-length portrait by Joshua Reynolds, he is presented as the archetypal noble savage: thoughtful expression, faraway eyes, incongruous flowing robes and elaborate turban, with his finely tattooed hands positioned for maximum effect. Omai sparked off a tattoo craze among metropolitan dandies. The craze came and went, but the association of tattooing with the "barbarism" of remote cultures persists to this day.

Material evidence of tattooing in the West survives from as early as 4,000 BC and the tattoo's long history is matched by a no less extensive breadth of association. The conventional view of it as merely a mark of criminality, deviance or savagery is, as several contributors to Written on the Body insist, hopelessly narrow. They show that tattoos have also served as, among other things, signs of identity or ownership, religious or group symbols, and purely decorative adornments to the body, often of exceptional artistic skill.

Written on the Body provides an overview of an intriguing and little-explored subject. The view that it offers, however, is not always very clear. Large portions of the book are so clouded by fashionable academic jargon as to be practically incomprehensible. Particular points and, in one or two cases, entire arguments are lost in a haze of verbiage.

The book's editor, Jane Caplan, leads the assault on sense in her introduction. "Generalising the tattoo as a meaningful historical and cultural performance is a way of reclaiming it for contemporary practice," she declares. Such language serves as a smokescreen to understanding. It obscures meaning and vexes. The interest and value of the book are thus severely diminished.

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