HOLLYWOOD star Angelina Jolie has one and David Beckham’s arms are covered with them. Lots of other footballers have prominent ones. But so do many young girls.
We’re talking about personal tattoos here: purely decorative body art, often proudly showing the wearer’s rebellious feelings. Inked with attitude, you might say.
Angelina Jolie apparently has a Bengal tiger etched on her lower back and she’s but one of an army of celebrities following the popular trend. It’s the latest fashion accessory.
Rugby footballers seem to like sporting Polynesian-inspired tattoos best, which seems apt as Pacific explorer Captain James Cook was probably the first English-speaking gent to use the verb ‘‘tattoo’’.
That was in 1769 when he was describing the Tahitian art of tatau in his diary, having seen some native warriors tattooed head to toe with intricate designs.
So, tattoos are nothing new, really, maybe just more prominent now in society.
Small indigenous groups, say in Japan, may have marked themselves with ink for thousands of years, with the practice largely dying out in the 1870s.
Long before that, the Roman emperor Caligula had gladiators tattooed as public property. Slaves were also marked to show their taxes had been paid.
Penal tattoos may date back to the Persians in the 6th century BC, according to a recent issue of Archaeology magazine. Enemies vanquished in battle, slaves who tried to escape and similar criminals were all tattooed.
In ancient Egypt, tattoos may have been the only early culture in which women wore tattoos. Figurines depicting tattooed women there, however, were sometimes known as ‘‘Brides of the Dead’’.
So, how are tattoos related to Lake Macquarie Art Gallery (LMAG) and A Very Fine River: convict stories from the Hunter, a current exhibition there?
Curated for LMAG by Rob Cleworth and Nicole Chaffey, the exhibition features five Hunter artists – Sophia Emmett, Ruth Feeney, Tara Standing, Ryan Williams and Carolyn McKay.
Each artist explores and interprets the once notorious convict camp called King’s Town (later Newcastle), to find inspiration.
Here, the work of visual artist Carolyn McKay particularly stood out for me. Her understated, yet powerful, video piece comprising eerie, constantly changing, green-tinged images of words and symbols projected on flesh backdrops – a male’s hairy chest and a female’s smooth back – iscalled Writing The Body.
McKay’s unusual research uncovered more than 40 descriptions of tattoos for men and women who spent time in the Newcastle penal settlement from the 1820s onward.
The intriguing tattoos mysteriously appear, then slowly disappear on skin before your eyes. They range from dot patterns to religious motifs; nautical images like anchors and mermaids to a loved one’s initials; phrases, long, nonsensical alphabet sentences, to fish, the moon, stars, hearts and flowerpots.
On first seeing the video, I was transported back years ago to an earlier yarn I wrote about five strange blue dots between the thumb and forefinger recorded on convict (and later colourful bushranger) Teddy Davis, who was transported to Australia by ship in 1833.
Better known as the leader of the Hunter’s notorious Jewboy Gang, the dots on his hand were typical secret identification signs used by the underworld in Dickensian London.
It’s now thought, for example, the five dots tattoo may indicate the four corners of a prison cell with the central dot being the person imprisoned; meaning literally, “I’ve been inside jail”.
The meaning of similar signs, however, is still unknown, with some secrets taken to the grave by convict gang members long ago.
Long historical descriptions of each convict (or bio-data) was always taken for prison hulk records, or in ship transport logs.
And LMAG exhibition co-curator Rob Cleworth has the answer why.
“The records are from a pre-photographic era,” Cleworth said.
“Vivid descriptions taken of physical appearance (height, hair and eye colour, scars) and indelible markings were necessary to identify felons, should they escape. The meticulous handwritten records describe all tattoos and other markings on each body,” he said.
Further highlighting the exhibit’s Newcastle gulag inspiration is a convict ball and chain, convict-made nails, pottery and a rare 1835 button.
As well, there’s a brick from Newcastle’s original convict jail (later the first hospital) in 1817, once standing off present-day Pacific Street on the same site as the old RNH North Wing. Until recently, the LMAG also showed a related convict exhibition called Felt Presence. On loan from Devonport, Tasmania, it showed a small, sad, convict-era ‘‘love token’’.
Female convicts banished from England to old Van Diemen’s Land in the mid 1800s would often leave secret messages on coins to their loved ones by scratching away the surface. On one side of the coin the King’s head was erased – a criminal offence – to create a keepsake as many would never see their loved one again.
But back to Carolyn McKay’s intriguing video recording of convict tattoos.
“I discovered at least 30per cent of male convicts and about 10per cent of the women transported to NSW had tattoos [in 1831]. Some had Latin initials, like INRI, meaning ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’. Beside nautical tattoos, some convicts had animals, like foxes, dogs and horses. One from 1830 even carried a curse. It read, ‘May the Rose of England never grow ... May the harp of Ireland never play, till I poor convict greets my liberty’.
“The tattoos were done by pricking the skin with a pin/needle, or a very sharp piece of glass then applying soot, lamp black, gunpowder or ink to make it stand out.”
McKay said that to further maintain a sense of identity and hope, some convicts had strings of very long nonsensical letters,like MWWHMDBDSDSDEDBDLDSDR which, in hindsight, suggests a biblical quote, or a political slogan.
“The records showed a lot of women had dot patterns on their hands, but today tattoos have become socially acceptable,” the visual artist said.
“The 19th century Italian anthropologist Lombroso, however, was very derogatory towards people with them, writing he felt they were feeble-minded or had a natural criminality. Incredible, isn’t it,” she said.
“And today, say in Queensland, with tougher laws against bikie gangs, I believe the legislation has allowed pubs and clubs to discriminate against people with tattoos.”
But a final irony linking with the convict era McKay finds amusing.
“I’m a descendant of First Fleet convict Matthew Everingham (the ‘unknown’ Blue Mountains explorer).
‘‘As he ended up living on the Hawkesbury River, I’ve found it fascinating to research and create my video artwork about convict tattoos,” she said.
“I don’t think Everingham was ever tattooed, but he was a legal clerk working in London’s Temple area where he stole some law books.
“Funnily enough, years ago I worked as a legal clerk in that same part of London and now I’m doing my PhD in criminology.
“I once dug up the old transcripts of Everingham’s trial. It’s amazing that all he ever said in his own defence was: ‘I was in distress’,” McKay said.
The exhibition, A Very Fine River, ends this Sunday, October 19.