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Is Canada's new PM the only world leader with a tattoo?

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News Magazine, Washington DC

image copyrightGod Save Justin Trudeau, Productions de la Ruelle

While some Canadians have been marvelling at the size of Justin Trudeau's election victory - helping the Liberal Party turn a wipeout in 2011 into an overall majority - others have been focusing on the 43-year-old's athletic body and a large tattoo on his left arm. Could he, they ask, be the only major world leader with a tattoo?

The tattooed image of a raven was getting a lot of attention on social media on election night. "OH that IS a Raven tattoo! This guy seems interesting," tweeted @meg_shuler. "Is Justin Trudeau the first Western leader to have a tattoo?" asked @aveek18 - one of a number of people who wondered this.

The design is borrowed from the Haida people indigenous to Canada's Pacific north-west, as the Liberal Party leader tweeted in 2012: "My tattoo is planet Earth inside a Haida raven. The globe I got when I was 23; the Robert Davidson raven for my 40th birthday."

The tattoo was on full public view soon afterwards, when he fought a charity boxing match against political rival, Patrick Brazeau, and surprised many by winning.

There seems to be some logic behind the choice of a Haida symbol. The Trudeau family were made honorary members of the Haida tribe in 1976 during the second prime ministerial term of Trudeau's father, Pierre. Justin Trudeau went on to attend the University of British Columbia.

image copyrightAP / AFP
image captionNeither Barack Obama nor Vladimir Putin have tattoos on their chest

So how unusual is it for a world leader to have a tattoo?

It's difficult to definitely say that no prominent current heads of state or government have tattoos. If they do, they keep them covered up. Tattoo historian Anna Felicity Friedman says she isn't aware of any. Nor is self-proclaimed tattoo professor Kevin Gannon.

However, there have been plenty of tattooed world leaders in the past.

Russian Tsar Nicholas II had a dragon inscribed on his arm during a visit to Japan in 1891, while King Alexander of Yugoslavia had a large heraldic eagle tattooed over his chest. King Frederick IX of Denmark acquired a number of naval-themed tattoos in the navy.

British Monarchs George V and Edward VII both had a Jerusalem cross tattooed on their arm to mark their pilgrimage to the city, while it's often reported that former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill had an anchor - although the Churchill Centre says it has found no evidence to support this.

In the US, president Teddy Roosevelt had his family crest tattooed on his chest, and Anna Friedman mentions two other tattooed presidents in her blog: James Polk who supposedly had a tattoo of a Chinese character meaning "eager", and Andrew Jackson who was said to have a tomahawk inked on his thigh.

"The interesting thing about Trudeau is he has been very willing to put his tattoo out there in the public eye," says Friedman.

"Trudeau also doesn't seem to be afraid to be a bit edgy."

image copyrightALAMY
image captionTrudeau was also mocked by rivals during the campaign for having once had long hair

Tattoo "professor" Kevin Gannon agrees.

"Being the PM is expected to be a buttoned-down role. But his youthful, new approach was refreshing, and a tattoo can underscore that image," he says.

It was a dilemma the former Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt faced in 2008, when an out-of-work artist wrote to him suggesting a chest tattoo in the design of a Viking-style ship and a horseshoe over a shield of fire, and underneath it his wife's name, "Filippa".

Reinfeldt declined the offer. "While the prime minister thinks it is important to reach out to young people," his spokesman said, "he has no plans to get a tattoo."

image copyrightPA
image captionSamantha Cameron, the wife of the British prime minister, has a tattoo of a dolphin

Michael Atkinson, University of Toronto sociology professor and author of Tattooed: The Sociogenesis of a Body Art, says Conservative Canadians will take Trudeau's tattoo as evidence that he is not ready for the job.

There will also be controversy, he says, "about someone who is not First Nation using First Nation iconography". But others will interpret it as a symbol of inclusivity, he suggests.

"He speaks to a generation of people who are looking for something different in terms of leadership and their sense of self, style, and approach to civic engagement. His tattoo is a good indicator of the man, and what he represents."

More from the Magazine

media captionThe next tattoo for the Prime Minister-designate?

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Related Topics

  • Justin Trudeau
  • Canada
  • Body art