Popeye's meant he sailed the Atlantic. Robbie Williams looked to Maori culture for inspiration in choosing his. Winston Churchill's mother discreetly covered hers with a bracelet.
All three bear a personal history etched in skin - a practice as old as man, but until recently in Western culture, one that was relegated to sea salts, criminals and whores. Today, the tattoo is undergoing a renaissance such that only the deeply unfashionable remain unmarked. Or so it would seem to a viewer of mtv, where celebs like Pink, Anastacia and Eminem proudly flaunt their skin art.
Prehistoric man was thought to have practiced tattooing - puncturing the skin with crude tools dipped in pigment that left a permanent mark possibly for therapeutic purposes - and mummies with decorative tattoos have been discovered in many parts of the world. Yet for nearly as long as there has been tattooing, there has been condemnation. The Romans considered decorative tattooing barbaric, a slur still evident in the Latin word for tattoo, stigma, and used tattoos to mark slaves and criminals. Despite its deep roots in ancient cultures, tattooing had fallen out of practice in Europe by the time Britain's Captain James Cook set sail for the Polynesian Islands in 1768. This is where "Skin Deep" picks up the tale.
Though Cook and his men were not the first Europeans to encounter Oceanic tattooing, they were the first to record the practice systematically. Through expedition artist Sydney Parkinson's striking drawings, on display at the museum, the Western world got its first glimpse of the intricate designs of the Pacific Islanders, like the full-buttock tattooing of the Tahitians and the elaborate face tattooing of New Zealand's Maori tribes, which mapped family lineage and personal histories. Cook also introduced to the English language the word tattoo, taken from the Tahitian.
The sailors were fascinated. "For them it was a completely new thing," says Nicholas Thomas, professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and an exhibition consultant. "They were astonished by the pain that people had to go through." Displayed in the museum are early tattooing tools made of bone, cut to a jagged edge to puncture the skin - a far cry from today's handheld electric tattooing machines that inject ink into the skin with a fine needle.
Cook's men didn't fully understand the significance of tattooing among the Oceanic people, for whom the designs were both rite of passage and symbolic protection against the spirit world and earthly enemies. Yet the sailors were eager to be marked themselves. "Tattooing is an example of how a small, remote society had a tremendously significant impact on European culture," Thomas says. "This changed the bodies of Europeans in a radical way."
Sailors adopted the practice with gusto, designing mariner motifs of their own. A turtle meant a sailor had crossed the equator, an anchor (like Popeye's) that he had sailed the Atlantic. Crucifixion scenes were also popular motifs - a vain attempt to avoid flogging, as it was hoped no one would dare whip the image of Christ. Soon, brandishing a tattoo from every port of call was all the rage. By the 19th century, 90% of all U.S. Navy sailors had tattoos. "They were like personal souvenirs on their body," Buch-Nielsen says. "It was like how we might buy a little Eiffel Tower or a postcard today." Because tattooing emerged from the underclass of mariner culture and grew in port districts, areas long linked with criminals and prostitutes, it developed a seedy reputation. "The tattoo parlor wasn't considered a place proper people would venture into," Buch-Nielsen says.
But once tattooists set up shop in bigger cities and the invention of the electric needle made the process less painful, attitudes began to change. In fact, for a short time, tattoos became a fad among the upper classes in England, inspired by the Duke of York (later King George V), who had a dragon tattooed on his arm in 1882. The fashion extended to women like Jennie Churchill, who had a serpent on her wrist.
Nevertheless, "the dominant associations have always been negative," Thomas says. "Only in the last 20 years has that changed significantly." He credits modern tattoo artists who offer custom designs, the adoption of hygiene standards and a shift in how we regard the body. "People have be-gun to embrace the notion of changing the body. They've thought of the body as a sort of canvas for their own work of art."
Today, all types of people get tattooed, says Lionel Titchener, president of the Tattoo Club of Great Britain. "When I first started tattooing in the early '70s, you might only have two or three women in the shop in the whole year. Now you get two or three a day. I do all sorts of people. I've tattooed Oxford dons."
Though the art was adopted from distant cultures and adapted to suit Western tastes, the drive to tattoo is little changed. "We do quite a lot of football badges here," says tattoo artist Alex Binnie, who owns the Into You tattoo studio in London. "A lot of men may divorce and remarry three times, but they support Arsenal their whole life. Having an Arsenal tattoo is a kind of tribal affiliation." As for Binnie, "I've got my girlfriend's name - and I've got a couple of ex-girlfriends' names as well. I've got my kid's name. I've got things that mean things to me. It records my way of life," he says. "So, really, it's not that different from a Maori warrior." And like the tattoos of the Maoris, Binnie's skin art is more than skin deep.