Book Review: Tattoo. Secrets of a Strange Art.

Dover Publications provided us already with such interesting books as ‘Maori Tattooing’ by H.G.Robley or ‘Tattooing in the Marquesas’ by W.C.Handy. They seem to specialize in reprinting books from the earlier periods, so it’s not a surprise that another, published by Dovers, book on the subject of tattoos I came across was also written several decades ago.

Written by Albert Parry and first published in 1933, ‘Tattoo. Secrets of a Strange Art’ is both amusing and very interesting to read. Since it comes from the 1930’s it’s quite heavily stained with a Freudian perspective and we’re consistently told and then reminded of tattoos related to both pain and the subconscious, and how people who decide to get a tattoo done are doing it mainly to punish themselves, manifest their ‘sexual awakening’ or narcissism. Quite obviously, a strong figure of the Father is also present here and I couldn’t help but laugh while reading that, according to the author, fathers strongly objecting against tattoos on their children (sons) do so because ‘they feel as if the tattooers had raped their sons’ (p. 36) With the abundance of editorials written by mature men/fathers about how they find modern body art disgusting etc., it would be really interesting to hear their opinion on this one little gem from the era gone.

The book by Parry, however, is definitely more than just a handful of Freud-based theories. The main goal of the author was to present tattooing in America at the moment, to show its beginnings and development and the author managed to do it quite well. The volume is small (barely 150 pages plus bibliography, several old, black and white pictures and a few examples of the old tattoo flash) but nicely packed up with the information on such subjects as ‘tattooers in America’, side-show business and its important figures, reasons for tattooing, anecdotes about tattooing, popular designs and early industry regulations. Parry notes at the beginning of the book that it is not, by all means, an exhaustive study of the subject but it probably was a pioneer one and quite interesting at that.

To me, as a modern reader, Parry’s book proved to be a fascinating read-up. Today’s articles on body art usually tell us that tattooing and body piercing have never been as popular as they are now; we hear over and over again how ‘mainstream’ it became and how it used to be a domain of sailors, soldiers and convicts even a few decades ago. And even though all of it is true to some degree, the picture of America in the first decades of the 20th century does not differ as much from the today’s world as one might think.

Tattoos not only a domain of sailors anymore? Parry points out how ‘European royalty’ was imitating the sailors and how Americans started to copy European royalty’s ideas’ just a short time later. Tattoo as a fad? Here’s an interesting entry on ‘detailed history of tattooing fads in America’s high society’ in Parry’s book. Minors getting tattooed illegally and subsequently regretting their hasty decisions? Parry covers this subject in a chapter about the youth and tattoos where he writes about ‘mass tattoo-psychosis among East Side children and laws and regulations governing tattooing of minors’. Today’s ‘stars’ of the body art world could be set next to the long-gone celebrities of the tattoo industry, such as Charlie Wagner or Lew-the-Jew – their names are pretty much forgotten by now and yet, back in the days, these names were as huge as todays’ Paul Booth, R. Hernandez and many others.

The body modification industry went a long way and, to a certain degree, it is much different than ever before but reading Parry’s book here and now can also show that nothing is really new in this industry and it still tackles the same problems and stereotypes and it’s ruled by the same attitudes and trends – context, time and development of the industry differ but at the core not much changed.

Parry Albert, Tattoo. Secrets of a Strange Art, Dover Publications Inc., 2006