Painted People: Humanity in 21 Tattoos by Matt Lodder - review by Shahidha Bari

Shahidha Bari

In With the Ink Crowd

Painted People: Humanity in 21 Tattoos


William Collins 352pp £20

Most of us will be unaware that part of the painter Lucian Freud’s repertoire was the ability to ink skin. Apparently he acquired this skill during his time in the navy. In 2002 he even tattooed the supermodel Kate Moss. The swallows he tattooed onto her lower back were a token of their friendship.

The story about Freud is just one of many in Matt Lodder’s intriguing and thoughtful Painted People. It comes towards the end of the book, which is organised chronologically, moving from the ancient world to the millennium. But the book is not merely a straightforward cultural history. It is more ambitious and conceptual than that. Lodder, a senior lecturer in art history and art theory at the University of Essex, begins by mulling over the differences between a work like the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre and the markings we might find on the skin of millions of people. If the purpose of what we call ‘art’ is to better understand ourselves and others, tattooing, he believes, is a form of image-making that brings us closer to both our ‘inner and communal lives’.

The premise of this book is that tattoos are a portal into the history of our human world. In order to begin to see this history properly, Lodder requires us to dispense with the anodyne (if understandable) questions we often ask the tattooed, like ‘Did it hurt?’ and ‘What does it mean?’ Instead of seeing tattoos as curiosities or ciphers for rebellion and deviancy, he asks us to adjust our vision, to reconceive tattooing as a medium rather than simply a phenomenon.

Lodder happily, and often haphazardly, hops back and forth in time. His purpose is not to explore tattoos ‘in every possible cultural context’. This, he knows, is not within any historian’s reach. The selection he offers is rather a reflection of his academic expertise and his own sensibility. Gently guiding us through twenty-one tattoos, Lodder encourages the reader to overturn clichés and commonplaces.

For all its seeming modishness, tattooing is a practice that dates back to the ancient world. Palaeoanthropologists hypothesise that proto-human species such as Homo erectus had been making decorative, symbolic or communicative marks on objects for up to half a million years. Lodder suspects that tattoos emerged at a similar moment of cultural invention in the evolutionary story, probably as a shorthand, enabling groups to identify with and distinguish between their neighbours, peers and adversaries. The evidence is limited but enticing. It includes the mineral pigments and turkey bone needles found by archaeologists in Tennessee on lands historically occupied by the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Shawnee and Yuchi peoples. They suggest an indigenous American practice of tattooing that dates back to at least 1000 BC.

Lodder is careful not to overstate his claims, but various figures from the past invite speculation. One such is Otzi the Iceman, a 45-year-old shot in the back with an arrow while travelling through the Alps and apparently left to die on a windswept mountain in around 3400 BC. Discovered by climbers in 1991, his immaculately preserved body displays sixty-one discrete lines, primarily in the form of short black tally marks and crosses, at fifteen locations on his body, including the lower back (a place, Lodder notes, that has become a ‘cute’ tattoo spot since the 1990s). Was Otzi his own tattoo artist? There are no tattoos on his right arm and they appear only in places that a right hand could reach. Lodder imagines him sitting by a smouldering fire, slicing his skin and rubbing soot into his wounds.

Equally mysterious is the headless torso of an Egyptian woman, suspected to have been thirty years old when she died three thousand years ago, discovered by archaeologists in Deir el-Medina. Her tattoos feature hieroglyphs, cows and cobras, connecting her to the cult of Hathor, a nurturing mother goddess. Lodder imagines her as a temple performer, channelling the goddess’s spirit in her ritual activities.

The status of the tattooed has always been in flux. Early modern Europeans rejected tattoos as being indicative of primitiveness or savagery, but tattooing was practised in Europe long before the rise of imperialism. Lodder connects tattoos as readily with royalty as with rogues. Among those to have had themselves tattooed were King Edward VII (with a Jerusalem cross) and an apparently infamous criminal gang whose members identified themselves with a sequence of dots on their hands.

The book ends in the modern period with the basketball star Dennis Rodman. Lodder reads his tattoos, hair, piercings and gender-fluid clothing as signs of ‘proudly queer experimentation’. Selfhood, Lodder insists, is a creative process. Tattoos are an expression of individualism, but they also illuminate the cultural environment in which they are created. Just look closer.

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