Meeting Notes: Tattoos and tanning: the historical study of skin alteration in embodied identities

Words by Eleanor Barnett

In our second meeting on our termly theme of bodily modification, we were really excited to hear two talks that focused on the alteration of skin. First, Dr Gemma Angel (UCL) presented a paper entitled, ‘The history and anthropology of European tattoos: a case study of the dagger-through-the heart tattoo’. Angel discussed the largest surviving European collection of preserved tattoos from the Wellcome Collection in London, 300 of which were gathered at the turn of the 20th century by Dr La Valette in Paris. Amongst the samples an example of a dagger-through-the-heart tattoo warrants particular comment. With roots in Christian iconography, Angel explained how the positioning of the tattoo – on the left chest – expressed the emotional pain of heartbreak. Fabiola Creed (University of Warwick), then presented on ‘Sunbed consumption in contemporary Britain, 1978- 2016’, a part of her compelling forthcoming PhD thesis. Mainly focusing on newspaper adverts, Creed argued that sunbed use was understood as vital to maintain the ‘ideal’ or healthy looking body in the later 20th century.

In the course of our discussion it became clear that neither tattoos nor tanning can be studied without considering their canvas, the body, and more specifically, the skin. Skin is our sensory gateway to the material world; through touch we are connected not only physically, but emotionally, to others. Covering our entire bodies, it is the most apparent feature of the self understood in physical terms. Modifying skin is intricately tied, then, to emotions and personal identity. Indeed, Angel explained how tattoos were a way for sailors to remember the ethnographic experiences that had shaped their characters. The dagger-through-the-heart motif can be seen as a physical expression of inner emotion, and indeed the physical pain experienced in etching the image into the skin can mimic the heartbreak that it depicts. Similarly, Creed’s consideration of adverts from the 1980s evidenced that tanned skin was associated with the health, athleticism, and wealth of the wearer.


A tattooed sailor aboard the USS New Jersey, and a depiction of a woman using a modern sunbed. Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons, & Flickr.

But modified skin could also be a sign of the ‘other’. After the 1980s tanning ‘boom’, tanning has slowly become associated with ‘tanorexia’ – the tanned body is now stereotypically working class, feminine, and vain. Meanwhile, our evidence of 19th century tattooing largely comes from the photos, drawings, and human remains collected by criminologists, like Alexandre Lacassagne (1843-1924), since tattoos were believed to be a physical sign of the psychotic and criminal mind.

Together, the talks allowed us to think more clearly about how we might study the history of the body: through the institutions that try to define it, through personal accounts, or through bodily remains? As is clear in the case of tanning (but equally with food, medicine, or tattooing), medical authorities, the government, and advertising agencies have all sought to enforce patterns of consumption that rely on idealised conceptions of the body. These notions are not always harmonious – sunbed use, for instance, continues to be advertised today against the broadly negative health impacts elucidated by the medical profession and in governmental advice. Studying adverts, pamphlets, and laws, would allow us to explore these official (often conflicting) narratives. Personal accounts, like diaries, would better illuminate historical agency. Angel was careful to note, however, that it is rare to find clear written expressions of the personal reasons that one might get a tattoo from the 19th century. Humans remains instead offer a unique and sensory insight into the historical subject, but without the context to trace the lives of the people behind the specimens the true meanings of the bodily modification can remain obscure.

This discussion raises questions about power. Is bodily modification an expression of personal empowerment and individual/ group identity, or evidence of conformity to societal norms or official advice (unconscious or deliberate)? What’s more, in the case of tattooed remains, samples are only available from those who had no control over the fate of their body after death, most likely from military contexts, prisons, or asylums. In the histories we write about embodied peoples of the past, we must consider the ways in which our own selection of sources contribute to narratives of power and agency over bodies and selves.

We’d like to thank Gemma Angel[1] and Fabiola Creed[2] for such fascinating and engaging talks!

If you’d like to learn more about their research, please follow the links below:



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