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Tattoos in Early France & Italy

Jean Baptiste Cabri, was a French sailor discovered by Georg H. von Langsdorff, the naturalist on Krusenstern's Russian expedition, living in the Marquesas in 1804. There were two Europeans on the island, an Englishman named Roberts and a Frenchman, a native of Bourdeaux, named Jean Baptiste Cabri. These two Europeans lived in a state of great enmity. Cabri was tattooed, and had married the daughter of one of the inferior chiefs. He appears to have been an unprincipled fellow, and did not possess such influence over the natives as the Englishman. He was however brought away by the Russians, and being an excellent swimmer, was afterwards engaged as teacher of that useful art to the corps of marine cadets at Cronstadt, France.

Sailor tattooingAfterwards, Cabri displayed himself at fairs, becoming the first European to exhibit as a tattooed man.

In France, tattooing was popular among seamen, laborers and convicts during the first part of the 19th century. Members of the middle and upper classes, thought tattooing was beneath their dignity and it was never popular amongst the wealthy as it was in England. The Catholic Church had traditionally opposed tattooing on the grounds it was associated with superstition and paganism.

The medical profession opposed tattooing because of the complications it could cause. In 1837, a leading doctor wrote about a young woman who died as a result of an infection related to a tattoo. In 1853, a physician, M. Hutin reported the first case in which syphilis was transmitted by tattooing. He wrote: "A soldier allowed himself to be tattooed by a man who was suffering from syphilis and who had chancres on his lips. The soldier was a virgin and perfectly healthy, and the tattooer only punctured his arm a few times. The Chinese ink used by the tattooer had dried up in a shell and several times the tattooer moistened his needles by spitting on them and diluted the ink with his saliva. In this way he inoculated the soldier with syphilis."

Knowledge of how infections spread weren't yet known and tattoo artists routinely used the same needles on more than one customer without cleaning them. They mixed their ink in clamshells and diluted it with saliva. It was normal to clean off a fresh tattoo with saliva, tobacco juice or urine.

French craftsmen often bore the insignia of their profession tattooed on their biceps like the fireman, coolies and litter-bearers of Japan. These craftsmen, or journeymen, would travel from town to town to ply their trade. In the absence of a diploma, which could, in any case, be lost or forged, they bore proof of their qualification on their skin. Furthermore, this method of identification enabled them to find work throughout Europe, regardless of their ability to speak the language of the country they were in. In the Dechambre dictionary, Professor Lacassagne provides a list of the insignia of these craftsmen. For example:

Stone Carvers - Compasses, a right angle, a chisel and a plumb line
Carpenters - Display a plane and pliers
Butchers - Have a bull's head on crossed knives
Bakers - Scales, kneading trough and a loaf
Barbers - Comb and crossed scissors
Cobblers - An awl and a boot
Blacksmiths - An anvil and hammer
Sailors - An anchor
Vine-Growers - A bunch of grapes
Gunsmiths - A pistol

In 1791, a revolutionary law (the Le Chapelier law) resulting from the Aliard Decree; abolished these guilds of craftsmen. Gradually the journeyman's emblems were forgotten. Only a few passionate craftsmen refused to let them go. It is still possible to find craftsmen who remain loyal to this tradition and bear a tattoo which indicates their journeyman status.

French prisoner with tattoos 1876
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Tattooing was never completely outlawed in France, but the fact it was forbidden in the Army and Navy put most professionals out of business, and there are few records of tattooing outside of prisons in Frances during the late 19th century.

The first written account of tattooing amongst convicts appeared in Cesare Lombroso's L"Uomo Deliquent in 1876. He was a professor of psychiatry and criminal anthropology at the University of Turin in Italy. He examined 5,343 criminals and found that about 10% of the adults were tattooed. He recommended that when examining a criminal, prison officials should make a detailed record of their tattoos. He made the first statistical records of tattooing and a record of tattoo designs of Italian convicts.

Numerous references to tattooing can be found in 18th and 19th century French literature. In the 1784 play, Le Mariage de Figaro, the infant Figaro is tattooed by his doctor for identification purposes. In Les Miserables, ex-convict Jean Valjean proves his identity in court by accurately describing tattoos on two convicts whom he had known many before in prison.

Tattoos were often used in French court cases to establish the identity of the accused, and for reason French prisons regulations dating from 1808 required prison officials to make detailed records of tattoos of each convict.

In 1880, Dr. Alexander Lacassagne, a professor of medical jurisprudence in Lyons observed many tattoos amongst the soldiers of the African Battalions. These battalions were made up of men who had served prison terms for offenses such as murder, desertion and theft. Lacassagne developed a way to trace tattoos on a piece of transparent paper that he placed over the tattoo. In this way he collected over 2,000 tattoo designs, many of which he reproduced in a work titled, Les tatouages, etude anthropologique et medico-legale (Paris, 1881).

French prisoner with tattoos 1876
French prisoner with tattoos 1912
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Lacassagne classified his tattoo designs according to subject matter and the position on the body. Many of the designs are still favourites today and include arrows, names, initials and dates;. But in other ways, French tattooing was unique. Many convicts had had mottoes in large letters tattooed across their chests or backs and included: "Death to Unfaithful Women"; "Kill the Pigs", "Death to the French Officers;" "Vengeance;" "Liberty or Death;" "Child of Misfortune;" Born under an Unlucky Star;" "The Past has cheated, the present torments me, the future terrifies me;" "The Whole of France is not worth a pile of Shit."

Ambitious, full-scale back pieces portrayed scenes from history, mythology and literature. Lacassagne counted over thirty tattoos featuring the Three Musketeers and also popular were portraits of Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Charlotte Corday, Garibaldi, Bismarck and other historical figures. The most popular mythological figures were Bacchus, Venus and Apollo.

The most popular erotic designs were the female bust and the nude female. The most unusual were a uniform a general that covered the whole body.

He found words tattooed below the navel: "Come ladies, to the fountain of love;" "Pleasure for girls"; "She thinks of me" on the buttocks.

His book is a valuable source for those interested in the history of tattooing with all kinds of art.

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