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Tattoos, illustrated in Henry Havelock Ellis's book 'The Criminal', 1895.

Tattoos, illustrated in Henry Havelock Ellis's book 'The Criminal', 1895.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

In Europe in the 1800s, tattooing was seen as a foreign fashion, one believed to have been imported by sailors who had acquired the technique from indigenous peoples, especially Pacific islanders, they encountered on their travels. Tattooing was seen as medically important; choosing to decorate the body was thought to reveal ‘primitive’ urges and tendencies. It was also held to demonstrate insensibility to pain, which was widely believed to be a sign of an underlying physical defect. In addition, dictionaries of recurring symbols based on studies carried out in prisons, asylums or army barracks established a language of tattoos and their meanings, which was used to make judgments about character and criminality.

The Italian criminologist Cesar Lombroso (1835-1909) also used tattoos in his attempt to quantify the bodies of dangerous individuals. His work from the 1870s to the 1900s is usually seen as the beginning of criminology. Lombroso believed that some criminals were congenital, that is they were born with criminal tendencies. He thought that tattoos could distinguish such criminals, who he considered to be ‘atavistic’, as ‘primitives’ or ‘savages’.

Tattoos were not only seen as a marker of potential criminal tendencies, they also provided a useful tool for identification. Criminologists sought to use anthropometric measurements of the body to identify repeat offenders, and to try and build up a profile of the physical characteristics of ‘born’ criminals. Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914), working in the Paris prefecture of police, was the driving force behind a project in the 1880s which aimed to create a systematic method of identification. It relied on photography and measurement and aimed to create a general system for characterisation and recognition of facial features.


Related links


J Caplan (ed.), Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History (London: Reaktion Books, 2000)

D Horn, The Criminal Body: Lombroso and the Anatomy of Deviance (New York and London: Routledge, 2003)