The name for Britain comes from our ancient love of tattoos

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David Beckham (Credit: H&M)
Tattooing has been part of British culture for thousands of years, but it was the aristocracy who made it the popular statement of rebellion.

It was both the scandal and fascination of the age. In 1881, the Queen's grandson and the future King George V, then just 16, received what’s been a rite of passage for many teenagers ever since: a tattoo of a blue and red dragon on his arm, done by an artist in Yokohama.

In newspapers back home, rumours had abounded for weeks that the young royal would soon sport the must-have fad of the age. Some stories wrote that the prince had already had a large arrow inked down his nose. Such was the belief in the tattoo’s existence that his mother, Alexandra of Denmark, wrote a furious letter to her son.

There was no face tattoo. But his inked arm, shown publicly for the first time during his audience with the Emperor Meiji, gave the royal seal of approval to an increasingly popular trend.

Japan's restoration in 1868 had opened up the country for trade to the West for the first time in centuries. Almost immediately, demand for both Japanese products and culture soared. Wealthy European aristocrats began to return home bearing Japanese artwork on their bodies. Now, the news of the prince’s design established a fashionable industry of tattooing in Britain, France and even the US: it became a show of social status – and of the ability to afford such commodities.

“The tattooing of the future king was such a famous moment that there was a drawing imagining what it might look like in the souvenir pull-out for George's marriage in 1893,” says Matt Lodder, a lecturer in contemporary art at the University of Essex. “So everyone knew that if you were wealthy and went to Japan, the done thing was to come back with a tattoo.”

An artist tattoos a European visitor in Nagasaki, Japan in 1881 as geishas prepare tea (Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy)

An artist tattoos a European visitor in Nagasaki, Japan in 1881 as geishas prepare tea (Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy)

But while George was perceived at the time as a trendsetter, he was continuing a pattern which had existed for centuries. Since the time of Julius Caesar, the British had repeatedly helped popularise the art of tattooing around the world.

The first proven tattoos in history date back around 5,000 years to the marks on Otzi the Iceman, a mummy found in the Alps straddling Austria and Italy. But in Europe, it became the early Britons who made the art famous: when the Romans invaded in 55 BC, they found the natives to be resplendent in body art. As Caesar wrote in his account of the Gallic Wars, “All the Britons dye themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible.” Such was the effect of their appearance that they became known throughout Europe as the Pretani, a Celtic word meaning the ‘painted’ or the ‘tattooed’ ones. From that, the name Britain was eventually derived.

Some have argued that the Britons were only painted, not tattooed. Still, later Roman scholars were convinced that what Caesar saw was ink. “That region is partly held by barbarians who from childhood have different pictures of animals skillfully implanted on their bodies so that as the man grows, so grow the marks painted on him,” wrote Gaius Julius Solinus in the 3rd Century. “There is nothing more that they consider as a test of patience than to have their limbs soak up the maximum amount of dye through these permanent scars.” When the Normans arrived in 1066, they too would discover the British fondness for tattoos. In the 12th Century, the chronicler William of Malmesbury described how tattooing was one of the first practices the Normans adopted from the natives.

But the modern story of tattooing in Britain begins with the colonial encounters in the Americas. The explorer and privateer Martin Frobisher made a number of expeditions to the New World between 1576 and 1578; he discovered tattooing was commonplace among the Native American tribes, from modern-day Canada all the way down to the south-west.

In 1577, Frobisher took three Inuit hostages and brought them back for display across Britain from Bristol to London – even showing them to Queen Elizabeth at court. The general public was shocked by the sight of their body artwork. To assuage their fears, the artist John White was commissioned to paint both portraits of the Inuit captives – and comparison illustrations of the ancient Britons, based on accounts from Roman scholars.

“There are these amazing images which he derives from classical descriptions of the ancient Britons, depicting them covered in these ridiculously incredible tattoos,” Lodder says. “Huge lions on their stomachs, and suns and flowers for the women. They were done to show that these people who had been brought over were not so different from us.”

The pilgrims' tattoos were pretty large, pictorial images. They basically look like footballer's sleeves

Frobisher's Inuits piqued a new interest in body art both in Britain and Europe in the 16th Century. And the trend flourished with the growing commercialisation of pilgrimages to the Holy Land. “It became the done thing as a Western pilgrim to Jerusalem to return home with a tattoo – a mark of your pilgrimage,” Lodder says. “There aren't many drawings of these which survive, but they're pretty large, pictorial images. They basically look like footballer's sleeves.”

So ubiquitous did tattooing become throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries in Britain that tattoos even came up in court cases. In January 1739, the London Evening Post reported the conviction of a 15-year-old thief whose trial found him to have an especially violent tattoo across his chest. “On his breast, marked with Indian ink was the portraiture of a man at length with a sword drawn in one hand and a pistol discharging balls from the muzzle in the other, with a label from the man's mouth, ‘God damn you!'” the story describes breathlessly. “This the rogue would have concealed, but a discovery being made thereof, he was ordered to show his breast to the court, who were all shocked at so uncommon a sight in so young a ruffian.”

The art still has devout practitioners today, like the man shown here at the International Tattoo Convention in London (Credit: Reuters/Alamy)

The art still has devout practitioners today, like the man shown here at the International Tattoo Convention in London (Credit: Reuters/Alamy)

The tradition of pilgrim tattoos continued into the 19th Century – and it was in this context that the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, was secretly tattooed with a cross in Jerusalem in 1862.

But the word ‘tattoo’ itself is a relatively recent introduction into the English lexicon, a legacy of the voyages of Captain James Cook to the Pacific Islands in the late 18th Century. While theterm had existed in the English language from the late 1600s, initially 'beating a tattoo' referred to a 'drumbeat'. Until Cook's voyage to Tahiti in 1769, the practice of skin art had been referred to as pricking, marking or staining. The Tahitians used the word 'tatau', however, to reflect their use of a mallet with which they tapped away at a long comb-like stick with needles. Cook recorded this in his diary and –through various friends – the word eventually became entered English as ‘tattoo’.

Natives of the island of Palau, including the tattooed King Abba-Thulle, from an 1844 engraving (Credit: Florilegius/Alamy)

Natives of the island of Palau, including the tattooed King Abba-Thulle, from an 1844 engraving (Credit: Florilegius/Alamy)

As well as giving tattooing its modern name, it was the British who commercialised it on a large scale for the first time in the Western world, stimulated by the explosion of interest in tourist tattoos in Japan – and by one particular legal case which captivated the world.

In 1854, the aristocrat Roger Tichborne went missing at sea, presumed dead in a shipwreck. Twelve years later, he miraculously reappeared in Australia and sailed to London. The returning Tichborne was never quite accepted back by his siblings. On their mother's death, as he was set to inherit the family fortune, they launched a lawsuit claiming he was an imposter.

The Tichborne trials in the early 1870s were a sensation, reported in newspapers worldwide. The case was eventually decided in a courtroom moment of Dickensian drama. It was revealed that at boarding school, the young Tichborne had been tattooed by his friends; when demanded by court to reveal his tattoo, he could not. The fake Tichborne was eventually revealed to be a butcher's son by the name of Arthur Orton and was sentenced to fourteen years in jail.

The media frenzy introduced tattooing to a wider audience when some newspapers suggested that perhaps all children should be tattooed – just in case they went missing at sea. An entrepreneur named Sutherland Macdonald decided to cash in.

As well as giving tattooing its modern name, it was the British who commercialised it on a large scale

Macdonald was a talented artist and a former soldier in the Anglo-Zulu war who learned the tattoo trade by inking designs on his fellow comrades. As the manager of a Turkish bath in London's fashionable West End, Macdonald began offering tattooing services on a commercial basis, the first recorded tattoo parlour in history. It was an immediate success.

“The British fascination with the Orient was a big part of this,” Lodder says, and Macdonald’s ownership of the hammam was a fortunate twist: “Not only are Japanese goods the hottest property in Europe, but you've got this ‘orientalist’ setting with a ready-made clientele of rich men walking around without their clothes.”

In the 1880s, Macdonald's business flourished as he capitalised on the public fascination with the tattooing of Prince George. Claiming to be the artist, and to have tattooed the wealthy and famous across the world from the King of Denmark to the Maharaja of Patiala, Macdonald and his tattoo parlour appeared in newspapers from Poland, France, Germany and even New Zealand. With clients requesting ever more elaborate designs, from European salon paintings to hunting scenes, he invented the first automatic tattoo machine in 1890 – a year before a machine was patented in the US.

Tattooing is now well-established on both sides of the Atlantic (Credit: Blend Images/Alamy)

Tattooing is now well-established on both sides of the Atlantic (Credit: Blend Images/Alamy)

The British aristocracy’s penchant for tattoos soon spread across the Atlantic: the New York Herald declared in 1897 “The Tattooing Fad Has Reached New York Via London”. With the American middle class seeking to imitate the British upper class, tattoo artists proliferated in New York.

Nearly every decade since has seen tattooing declared as the latest ‘new’ trend on both sides of the Atlantic; recent surveys suggest that one in three young adults in Britain are inked. It may not be as new as we thought – but the painted Britons of Caesar's time would almost certainly approve.

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