Art Criticism and Writing | MFA Program

Wednesday March 13th, 2013
Filed under Spring 2013, Uncategorized

On George Prochnik’s “The Tattoo Solution”

by Sabrina Mandanici

The universality of tattooing is a curious subject for speculation–Captain James Cook

Gottfried Lindauer, "Maori Chief Tukikino," 1878. Oil on canvas. Courtesy Auckland Art Gallery

Storytelling as well as the linear narration of history both derive from the urge to domesticate the unintelligible nature of human behavior. Luckily, inconsistency is as human as the longing to overcome it. So if we look carefully enough we might find the disjunction that every story bears.

It is through such an inconsistency that George Prochnik describes and investigates the origin, purpose and motivations of tattooing in the Western world. Published in Cabinet’s 46th issue, “The Tattoo Solution” opens with the idea that tattooing is a universal practice reflecting the human condition that skin is perceived as a limitation. We share an impulse to overcome the discrepancy between the outside and inside, and the epidermis is “the best place to begin redressing this imbalance.”

In seven sections, Prochnik elaborates the plurality of tattooing around the globe. The most ancient example is on the 5,200-year-old “Iceman” found on the Austrian-Italian border. Probably resulting from prehistoric arthritis treatment, his body markings sustain the theory that tattooing started through scarification, which was a way to aestheticize the scars of medical incisions. The variously decorative, magical or punitive uses of this body art are traceable from shortly after (e.g. the Nubians from the Middle Kingdom, 2,200 years ago).

However, Prochnik’s real interest lies in the practice’s introduction in the Western world. Common places to start from are Captain Cook’s travels to Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, in which he passed Polynesia. Through the close contact the crew had with the islanders, of whom most were tattooed, the tattooed sailor became a transatlantic commonplace. The problem with this story, as Prochnik points out, is that it omits another probably more accurate story of the introduction of tattoos in the West, deriving from more sanctified impulses.

Jacob Razzouk outside his shop on Christian Street, Jerusalem, ca 1950. Courtesy Wassim Razzouk.

By the end of the 19th century a tattoo craze appeared among the pilgrims in Jerusalem. Located close to the holy sepulcher, the tatoo shops offered various motifs, from the Jerusalem Cross to fabulous animals as well as names and sentences from the Koran. Despite hundreds of years of practice—even the Prince of Wales had one made, during his visit to Jerusalem in 1862—this history of spreading has been almost completely repressed, and Prochnik asks why.

An answer is found within the rise of new biologists in the late 19th century. Through statistical research the criminologist Cesare Lombroso conducted a series of studies of Italian soldiers, distinguishing between those characterized by honesty and by viciousness. As the latter were always found to be tattooed, he extended his research to criminals, revealing that recidivist criminals were five times more likely to be tattooed than one-time offenders. Soon the body image was linked with characteristics of violent passion and blunted sensibilities, all symptomatic for “regressive” characters. This conclusion apparently did not jibe with the pilgrim tradition but instead invited the parallelism between savages and tattoo carriers. By revealing this blind spot Prochnik not only makes claims for a universality of the tattoo, but also reminds us that the writing of history is a particular kind of fiction.

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