In the 1881 autobiographical booklet The Life and Adventures of Capt. Costentenus, the author gives a harrowing account of how his body came to be covered from head to toe in nearly four-hundred elaborate Burmese tattoos. It seems that after many incredible adventures throughout the Near and Far East, Captain Costentenus was laboring in a copper mine in China and along with two of his fellow miners, organized a worker’s uprising which ultimately put him at the mercy of the local sovereign, Yakoob Beg, Khan of Kashagar. The pitiless Yakoob offered Costentenus and his conspirators a choice of six grisly punishments and one that really doesn’t sound that bad: “You may be starved to death, stung to death by wasps, killed by tigers, cut to pieces–beginning at the toes–impaled on spears, burned to death, or tattooed. If you survive the last, the Khan will give you your liberty.”
According to Costentenus, he and his companions decided that tattooing was preferable to death by wasps, tigers, spears, starvation, fire or being cut to pieces. And though Costentenus survived the ordeal, the same cannot be said for his less stalwart companions, who allegedly died (and presumably in terrible agony) in the course of the tattooing sessions. Apparently health code regulations regarding body modification were virtually non-existent and very loosely enforced in late nineteenth century China.
After three excruciating months at the hands of Yakoob’s merciless tattoo artists, the brave Costentenus supposedly killed one of the Khan’s men, was sold to a Turk who put him up for auction at a slave bazaar, and was purchased by a wealthy American whose riches were “gained in the show business.”
Thus began the good captain’s illustrious career in the freak show as a “living picture gallery”.
Of course, only the most credulous twenty-first century reader can believe Captain Costentenus’s account. The tale is so fraught with implausible circumstances and unlikely characters that it’s impossible to regard it as anything more than the ornate fabrication of a flamboyant opportunist. But his story and others like it help account for the modern Western attitude toward and fascination with tattoos. They’re often seen as exotic, primal, atavistic and a hallmark of the rebellious, the fringe and the disenfranchised. To quote the Italian scientist Cesare Lombroso, “Tattooing is in fact one of the essential characteristics of primitive man and men who still live in a savage state.”
Lombroso wrote that in 1896, so we have no way of knowing if he intended his statement to apply to the millions of twenty-first century women whose lower backs would later be adorned with so-called “tramp stamps” or the countless other “savages” whose petite ankles would be graced with delicate daisy chains or tiny four-leaf clovers, but I think it’s safe to assume that he would have taken a rather dim view of all such markings, no matter how modest (or inane).
Over the past two years, I’ve had the great fortune of photographing a number of beautiful women with many gorgeous tattoos. None can compete with Costentenus in terms of total coverage or sheer audacity, but as far as I am aware, none of them are trying. And unlike Lombroso, I wouldn’t dare classify any of these women as savages, or even aspiring savages (though one of them did once express her intention to become a full-time hobo).
When I look at these women and the beautiful artwork on their skin, I can’t help thinking that the act of getting inked is indeed an act of rebellion, but not in a William Wallace kind of way. I believe (and I don’t presume to speak on behalf of anyone pictured here, or indeed, anyone pictured anywhere) that getting tattooed is a woman’s way of asserting ownership over her own body. And given the disproportionate and disconcerting influence of politicians who go to increasingly appalling lengths to limit a woman’s right to choose what she may or may not do to her own body, I see tattoos on women as an act of defiance, a political statement that she and no one else is sovereign over her own body.
And to be fair, I also see tattoos on women as an opportunity to make pretty pictures.
Freak Show by Robert Bogdan, The University of Chicago Press (1988)