Pictures in the Human Skin

Pictures in the Human Skin

By Gambier Bolton, 1897

It may sound almost incredible that people are to be found who will patiently sit for hours at a time, whilst undergoing a certain amount of pain at the hands of a tattooer who, with his sharp needles or other pointed weapons, fixes indelibly on various portions of their bodies pictures and designs of all kinds, and yet that such is the custom to-day in nearly every part of the globe is a fact that can be proved beyond doubt, and it is no exaggeration to say that tens of thousands of men and women are more or less decorated in this manner at the present moment.

In early times, when our barbarian ancestors pricked a decoration of woad into their bodies, the custom was possibly connected with a religious rite, and to show how universally it was practised in Britain we have only to refer to the earlier historians who, during and after the Norman conquest, speak of it as a "vice". But to-day we find tattooing practised not only for religious purposes, but for the purposes of decoration and identification after death as well, and in such places as Great Britain, Japan, Palestine, Central and South America, Burmah, Borneo, New Zealand, and over the whole of Oceania, whilst many of the wild red men of North America are still more or less decorated in this fashion, as their forebears were for countless generations; and, in very ancient times, we find it also a common practise amongst the Germans, Gauls, and Romans. One of the most interesting and mysterious facts in connection with this subject is in the way in which it spread from continent to continent in early days, and at a time in when there could have been no means of communication between the very races of mankind.

But to come down to more modern times, we find England, America, Burmah, and Japan the centres of really artistic tattooing, and we give several illustrations of the various styles of work done there, with the instruments generally in use. Whilst in these countries the fair sex but rarely submit to the operation, in Borneo we find the women tattooed more of less heavily, according to the district, on the hands and arms, feet and ankles, and from the waist to the knees; but the men, and these nearly always warriors, carry only the quaint designs shown in the sketch, and high up, one on each shoulder, so that it is extremely rare to find anyone but an inhabitant of Borneo, or some European whom they have greatly respected, bearing these special marks. In the Queen Charlotte Islands the Haidas are universally tattooed, the design, in every case, being the totem, done in conventional style. Sometimes several families of different totems live together in the same large house, and in such a case the Haida chief will have all their totems tattooed on his person. In the Marequesas Islands (South Pacific) the men have the whole of the body covered with black punctures, whilst the women have very few of them. In Samoa and the islands immediately adjacent, the men alone are adorned in this manner, whilst at Fiji, on the other hand only the women are tattooed. The Maoris of New Zealand tattoo the lips of the women a blue tinge, whilst the faces of the men are adorned with the strange design shown in our illustration. They use only a sharp shell, with which they cut deep lines in the skin; these are kept open for a time and coloured earth rubbed in, the result being a series of rough ridges wherever the shell has touched; but as this most unpleasant operation was deeply mixed up with their religion, it was universally practised and submitted to, until the missionaries arrived upon the scene. How unpleasant this operations is may be inferred from the curious feeding funnels which are illustrated on this page. The funnels, carved with elaborate designs, are employed to feed newly-tattooed natives with liquid food for some days after the operation; during which time the jaws are too stiff and sore to masticate solid food. In the Hawaiian (Sandwich) Islands, widows used to have the name of their dead husband pricked into the tongue, but so far as the writer's experience goes, neither this, nor in fact any kind of tattooing is now practiced in these islands, owing possibly to the influence of the missionaries, who, in all quarters of the globe, attack the custom with the greatest energy, especially where it is found to be in any way connected with the religion or superstitions of the natives.

During the reign of the last King in Burmah, a law was passed making it compulsory on every male over ten years of age to be tattooed from the waist to below the knees, and this in spite of the fact that very many boys and young men died under the operation, generally from the inflammation set up by the use of the barbarous weapon still used today. It consists of a brass rod measuring altogether about 15 in. long, and at the top is a heavily weighted iron god, whilst at the "business" end is a piece of hollow brass rod 5 in. long and ground down to a somewhat sharp point. The Indian ink is placed inside this, through two slots, for they use but the one colour, and the artist, sitting on some portion of his victim's anatomy, steadies the hollow point of the weapon between his toes, and then with both hands proceeds to prod the point into the skin dot by dot. The result being shown in the illustration. This is an extremely unpleasant operation, as the writer can testify from his own experience, and when added to this it is borne in mind that the work is generally performed in public, and with a crowd of laughing girls and boys anxiously waiting to hear the victim cry out, or use more or less violent language as the operator touches up some peculiarly tender spot, it will be seen that the tattooed in Burmah have to pass through a very disagreeable ordeal. Although since the occupation of that country by the British the practice has become almost obsolete, it is quite common to see men of  five-and-twenty and upwards tattooed as shown in the photograph of a native taken by Mr. Biato, of Mandalay, and the artist still manage to earn a precarious livelihood by operating on travellers and soldiers who are stationed there.

The Japanese tattooers are celebrated all over the world, and in that country, at least, the work of the best men is recognised by their countrymen at a glance, and is looked upon with the awe and respect that we should show to a chef d''euvre by Leighton or Tadema; and one is bound to admit that there ism ore or less of Art in the work done by Hori (ie.. the tattooer) Chyo, of Yokohama, and who had the honour of placing several designs on the late Duke of Clarence, and his brother, the Duke of York, and Hori Yasu, of Kioto, to whom Chyo was apprenticed, and whose whole body is covered with the rough designs and crude efforts of his pupil whilst under instruction. For these two men at least can turn out genuine pictures on the human skin with the proper lighting and shading, and all those cunning effects for which the painters of Japan are so justly celebrated, and which are only surpassed by the tattooing work of one man in England.

A visit to Chyo's charming bungalow on the Esplanade at Yokohama is one of those things that most travellers to that fascination country perform almost as soon as they land, and after a hearty welcome in most excellent English, we sit down either to watch the operation or to have some memento of our visit placed on our bodies. Two or three smiling pupils, walk about noislessly, ready to supply the master with any sized needle or different ink that he may require, and ever ready to bring fresh cigarettes or cooling drinks to the visitor, whilst on their bodies may be seen some of Chyo's finest work executed before he lost the sight of one eye, from constantly straining the eyes over some of the smallest and most delicate work ever done by the tattooing needles - a lifesized lizard on the top of the forehead of one of the pupils being so painfully realistic that we quite believed that no fly would ever settle on his head, unless it had made up it's mind that life was not worth living. Lying at full length on luxurious cushions on the floor, and whilst Chyo's needles were leaving their indelible marks on our bodies, we had time to examine a few of them, and found  them to consist of neatly carved and brightly decorated ivory sticks, about the length and thickness of an ordinary pencil, whilst firmly lashed on the end were needles of various thicknesses, and ranging in number from one to half a dozen, the finer ones being used for outline work, whilst the heavier grades where used only for shading; but one and all are held and used at such a sloping angle as to give the smallest amount of pain possible, the sensation being more of a gentle scratching than anything else, and we were not surprised to hear from him that many European lady travellers often carry a tiny butterfly or stork on their shoulders to the end of their lives when once they have crossed Chyo's fatal threshold. Still, he is always provided with a miniature silver hypodermic syringe, and this he will use constantly, if requested to do so by owners of unusually tender skins, in the case of heavy shading or on any spot that he knows from experience is likely to cause sharp pain, and we could not help comparing his methods with those of the rough and ready Burmese tattooer.

A curious story is told about Hori Chyo. It seems that some time ago he was summoned to the police court and told that his trade was contrary to the law of Japan. To this he replied that he had never tattooed any Japanese, but that some years ago when the Russian Heir Apparent (at present Emperor) came to Japan he tattooed a dragon on the Price's left arm. Since then, he had tattooed several foreign noblemen and millionaires. He added that tattooing is now known abroad as one of Japan's fine arts, and he claimed that, so long as he does not operate upon Japanese, he commits no violation of the law. The police, however, did not take this view, but ordered him to stop the business, and mulcted him in a small fine. This was reported in so e of the papers at the time, and a Mr. Bandel, a millionaire of New York, who had come to Yokohama, offered to engage him for three years at an annual salary of 2,400 pounds (silver). This, however, Hori Chyo declined, saying he would not accept less than 2,400 (gold). Mr. Bandel seems to have agreed to this, and is soon to take him to New York. It is said that Hori Chyo told one of his friends in jest that his getting such a high salary was entirely due to the kind efforts of the Yokohama police.

Hori Chyo's great discovery was the use of  the third colour (brown) in addition to the regulation blue-black and vermilion, and with these three colours he has produced veritable masterpieces. A glance through his album of photographs, of the work actually performed on English and American patrons, is a revelation to anyone seeing it for the first time, two of the most remarkable being a huge dragon in three colours, covering an American doctor's back entirely whilst on the other hand a life'-sized fly was put on an Englishman's wrist so naturally that one would feel tempted to call his attention to the fact that the insect was getting a free lunch out of him, if we were not told that it was the work of the tattooing needles.

As examples of American work we give the portraits of Mr. And Mrs. Williams, who are said to be tattooed from top to toe. The price charged in New York for a costume of this kind varies from about eighty to one hundred and twenty pounds, the Brothers Riley producing most of the best work on the bodies of those who make a living by exhibiting themselves to the British public. It will at once be noticed that there is a distinct type or character in the American tattooing which is quite different from that produced in Burmah or Japan, and more closely resembles that borne by sailors who, for the purpose of identification in case of death by drowning, at one time pricked gunpowder into their arms or the backs of their hands, and then touching it with a lighted match, left a scar that nothing but actual excision could ever take out again. The only case in which this painful ordeal has been borne, so far as the writer's experience goes, was at the hospital at Singapore, when the scar left behind was infinitely worse that the original tattooed design of an anchor on the back of the hand.

But of recent years this "gunpowder" tattooing has dropped out of fashion, and the three or four needles at the end of a piece of stick with Indian ink and a chochineal red are now used generally by sailors; and although this style of work is rather crude and rough in draughtsmanship, yet many pleasing designs, such as those shown by Mr. And Mrs. Williams, ships in full sail, anchors, stars, mottoes, and names, can be seen at times on the chests, arms, and legs of our gallant blue-jackets.

One of the finest pieces of tattooing ever produced in America is now on the back of Emma De Burgh, who with her husband, Frank De Burgh, has frequently appeared before English audiences. The piece of tattoo art which we refer to is a most effective reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper". One would little think it possible that a tattooer would be able truthfully to reproduce the variety of expression shown in the faces of Christ's Apostles, but it is the success with which this has been done that makes Mrs. De Burgh's back unique. Above the picture stand the "Golden Rule" in a neat scroll, and on the "table-cloth," in large letters, "Love one another." The Biblical idea, which was carried out upon Mrs. De Burgh, finds a mate on the back of her husband. The tattoo represents the ever memorable scene on "Mount Calvary," extends from shoulder to shoulder, and the picture occupies the whole of the back. No one who does not examine the original can realize the minuteness of the work in this picture, and the length of time taken for it's accomplishment.

A better idea of the skill with which almost every inch upon the human skin can be utilized by the tattooer with picturesque effect will be gained from Frank De Burgh's "front view". We also note that between these two public characters there is an  indelible bond of affection. For, on Mr. De Burgh, we find the inscription, "Forget-Me-Not" in a graceful scroll, held aloft by the hand of a maiden fair. Beneath this figure is the name "Emma," and below this the full name of the head of the firm. On Mrs. De Burgh, the names of "Frank" and "Emma" are again prominent.

It may have been from photographs of the Williamses and the De Burghs, with their highly-decorated bodies, that the New York comic paper, Puck, got it's idea some years ago of representing the Hon. James G. Blaine as the "Tattooed Man." Anyone who compares the photographs we reproduce with the Puck cartoons, will note the similarity. The "Tattooed Man" immediately sprang into popularity, and in a Presidential campaign that unfortunately descended into most degrading personalities, these cartoons did destructive work.

English soldiers do not appear to take to this practice readily, although many officers and men who have been quartered in Burmah bear the regimental crest or badge on their arms, roughly forced into the skin with the weapon already mentioned, and some few men in regiments which have not only had designs placed on their own bodies, but may sometimes be seen practising on others in their regiment. To this habit we owe the fact that in London at the present moment is produced the very finest tattooing the world has ever seen; for Mr. Sutherland Macdonald, whilst in the Royal Engineers, used often to watch the men working with their roughly made needles in the barrack-room, and having always had a taste for figure and landscape painting, he was at last induced to give his attention to tattooing, with the result that in a few years' time he has not only equalled the work done by the Japanese, but has even excelled them; for in addition to using Chyo's three colours, he has, after much patient investigation, discovered a permanent ultramarine blue and a very beautiful green, both perfectly harmless to the human skin, and he is now diligently practising on his own body for a yellow and a lavender. The two chief difficulties to be overcome are that many skins will not stand  any known yellow, throwing it out very soon after it is worked in, or else, as it heals, it will turn to a very different and unpleasant colour; and this applies also to all of the lavenders at a present known to a science. But it is only a question of time and money with him, and before long he will be using no fewer tan seven different colours; and, by mixing one of two of these, he will have nearly as many to choose from as the oil or water colour artist.

As if this were not sufficient, he has also invented and patented an electric machine into which he inserts either a single fine or large needle, as he may require one or the other, and with this instrument he can do outlining work five or six times as quickly as that done with the ordinary needles in the hand of an expert, and the lines are far more regular and even, whilst pain is reduced to a minimum. For shading or heavy work he uses the Japanese needles, ivory handles and all, and to prevent any chance of carrying disease from one sitter to the other, he has the most perfect system of disinfecting that the most  careful medical practitioner could wish for, as he fully realizes that mischief that may be caused by the use of needle which are not properly disinfected on one person after the other, as many have found out to their cost abroad.
As examples of his work, we give a dragon, coat of arms, snake round the neck, and his masterpiece, the fighting eagles; but it is impossible to reproduce these subjects by photography as well as we might wish, for most of the delicate shading is missing and the colored work is absolutely lost; but it may be said with out fear of contradiction that no one in the past, and no man living today, can compare with Madconald in placing really artistic pictures on the human skin.

A visit to the little studio at "TheHammam," in Jermyn Street, is, in it's way, quite as interesting as a visit to Chyo's bungalow, and whilst recognising such salient features in both as the luxurious cushions, resting here on a divan instead of on the floor, the familiar needles with their gaily decorated handles and the little hypodermic syringe, not to mention the ever ready box of cigarettes and the accompanying cooling drinks, we find here the additional comforts of the electric light and a snug stove, both of them very necessary in the variable English climate. And quite as much time may be profitably spent in going through the portfolios of both, for whilst in those of Chyo's we find scarcely anything but the art of Japan, very beautiful and fascinating in it's soft colouring and dainty effects, in Macdonald's albums we find drawings and paintings gathered from all quarters of the globe, and of all and every kind, quaint, humorous, and pathetic, but each one specially selected for the purpose of being reproduced by the tattooing needles, and in more than one instance the copyright of some particularly striking picture has actually been purchased outright, so that no one but the wealthier patrons of the Jermyn Street studio shall have the use of them.

Turning over the leaves, we notice, amongst other quaint designs at this moment adorning the bodies of some of our best known society men, three five-pound notes, full size, on which, perhaps, the owner can "raise the wind," if at any time short of a cab-fare, by placing himself in temporary pawn; a fox hunt in full cry, horses and their scarlet-coated riders, with a very level pack of hounds careering down the owners back in wild pursuit of a "little red rascal," racing for his life; whilst on more than plucky individual, who rumour says has an extremely tender epidermis, not content with a handsome pair of dark blue socks with scarlet "clocks" on his feet, has lately been adorned with all manner of strange designs, from his neck down to the top of the socks, and this at quite a fabulous price, when we bear in mind the length of time it must have taken to carry out such a large order. 

Officers are constantly to be seen here having their regimental badge placed on their arms, whilst the number of crests and coats of arms in the albums testify how popular is this form of decoration. Travellers in dangerous and remote districts often have a few words of Arabic, Burmese, or the language of whatever country they may intend to travel through, placed on their wrist as a sort of passport in cases of emergency and identification after death; whilst the ladies - but, no, we will draw the curtain down and spare them; suffice it to say that Royal Princes and Dukes, the members of our nobility and thousands of humbler folk, bear today on their bodies clever, humourous, and artistic designs the  work of that master of art of tattooing, Madconald, Of Jermyn Street, and we leave him with the thought uppermost in our minds what a pity it is that, unlike Chyo, he has no pupils and no one to take up the mantle, which some day must fall from his shoulders for ever.


Tattoo Tribe Clothing and products inspired by classic tattoo designs and quotes.

top of page

Celeb Tattoos | Facts & Stats | Designs & Symbols | History | Culture | Links | Tattoo Galleries | Contact

Copyright 1999- All rights reserved.