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French tattoo history

31/10/2019
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Millions of people across borders, classes, and cultures have modified their bodies using ink. While many are fascinated by tattoos for their aesthetic value, their graphic history reveals how they have acted as a means of suppression and exclusion but also as a form of resistance to restrictive social codes. France is a colorful case study showing how attitudes towards tattoos have changed across the centuries.

From the 16th century onwards, French voyagers encountered people with different kinds of bodily practices to theirs in places from the South Pacific to the Americas. Such people were, in the eyes of some French observers, “primitive” outsiders to “civilisation”, and their tattoos only contributed to this perception. Others – notably sailors – were inspired by what they saw, and got busy with the ink. By the turn of the 19th century, the “tattoo” had a common name in Europe as tatouagesTätowiren, or tattoos.

In 19th-century France, authorities began to use the tattoo to mark a different kind of “outsider”: the criminal. The hot iron which had branded early-modern French criminals was replaced by the more discreet weapon of the tattooist’s needle in 1832. Instead of a generic fleur-de-lys, criminals were marked with an individual code to identify them.

The tattoo was a visual marker of the criminal’s submission to legal authority. But it was also a form of physical violation. In Christian religious culture, bodily markings had often been condemned as evidence of paganism as Jane Caplan has pointed out. When the needle penetrated the convict’s skin, it symbolically took away what remained of their body’s sanctity. The hot iron brand punished the body, but the tattoo punished the soul.

When convicts took to inking themselves, though, they appropriated the tattoo. The prevalence of tattoos on men in the French overseas penal colonies and in military prisons contributed to their association with deviancy in the late 19th century.

In a photographic essay, Jérome Pierrat and Eric Guillaume demonstrated how the tattoo became a striking means of rebellion against “respectable” society by the mauvais garçons of the fin-de-siècle French underworld. For some, these tattooed “bad boys” had a certain exotic allure – see the popularity of Edith Piaf’s tattooed Legionnaire, or Papillon, the fanciful “memoir” of ex-convict Henri Charrière published in 1969. In the book, the protagonist’s nickname comes from the butterfly – the papillon – tattooed on his chest: an emblem of hope and freedom as he tries to escape prison.

Since then, individuals and groups have continued to choose needles and ink as tools with which to court outrage at the same time as expressing themselves artistically.

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