The 75,688 tattoos cataloged within the Digital Panopticon database of Victorian period convicts depict a dizzying array of topics. A “routine felony” named Charles Wilson, for example, boasted physique artwork that includes a bust of Buffalo Invoice, a coronary heart and the title “Maggie.” One Martin Hogan had tattoos of a hoop, a cross and a crucifix. Different common designs documented by way of the net portal embody anchors, mermaids, the solar, the celebs, family members’ initials, ornamental dots, weapons, animals, flags and nude figures.
Per a November 2018 blog post, the researchers behind Digital Panopticon—a sweeping collaborative challenge that traces the lives of some 90,000 criminals convicted on the Old Bailey courthouse and imprisoned in Britain or Australia between 1780 and 1925—got down to examine convict tattoos in hopes of higher understanding the apply of tattooing’s historic significance.
Prisoners’ tattoos weren’t symbols of felony affiliation or “bad repute” as generally thought, report challenge investigators Robert Shoemaker and Zoe Alker for the Conversation. As an alternative, the designs “expressed a surprisingly big selection of optimistic and certainly trendy sentiments.”
“Tattoos present an necessary window into the lives of those that sometimes left no written information of their very own,” the researchers write. “As a type of ‘historical past from under,’ they offer us a fleeting however intriguing understanding of the identities and feelings of unusual individuals up to now.”
Though the survey centered on the 58,002 convicts whose tattoos are described in surviving information, the workforce additionally discovered that tattooing was a “rising and accepted phenomenon” within the wider cultural sphere of Victorian England, in line with Shoemaker and Alker.
Removed from showing solely on the our bodies of convicts, troopers and sailors, tattoos grew to become more and more trendy over the course of the Victorian period. In 1902, a British journal touted the “slight pricking” of the tattoo needle as so painless that “even probably the most delicate women make no grievance.” By the flip of the twentieth century, unskilled staff, engineers and royals alike have been all sporting physique artwork. As Ros Taylor reported for BBC News in 2016, the long run George V received a tattoo of a blue-and-red dragon throughout an 1881 journey to Japan, and his father, Edward VII, commissioned a tattoo of a Jerusalem Cross throughout a pilgrimage.
The Digital Panopticon workforce used data-mining techniques to extract data on tattoos from broader descriptive information of criminals imprisoned in each Britain and Australia, the place an estimated 160,000 convicts have been despatched between 1788 and 1868. In keeping with the project page, detailed bodily descriptions of prisoners have been generally recorded, as these figuring out options might be used to trace down escaped convicts and repeat offenders.
After extrapolating the related knowledge, the investigators divided tattoo descriptions into 4 subcategories: designs (equivalent to anchors and rings), written phrases or letters, physique half(s), and topics (the checklist runs the gamut from nationwide id to astronomy, loss of life, pleasure, faith and nature).
Utilizing these knowledge factors, the workforce created a novel set of visualizations exploring such subjects as changing tattoo trends over time, males’ versus females’ chosen tattoo subjects, and correlations between topics. Between 1821 and 1920, naval themes, non secular symbols and tokens of affection topped the tattoo chart, whereas photos of justice and punishment, America, and intercourse have been hardly ever inked. The most well-liked tattoo location was the arm, adopted by the elbow, and the most well-liked tattoo topics have been names and initials.
As Shoemaker and Alker write for the Dialog, convicts’ tattoos have been much less involved with “expressing a felony id” than inscribing the physique “in a lot the identical manner” as fashionable tattoos.
“Of their photos of vice and pleasure some convicts could have signaled another morality however for many,” the researchers conclude, “tattoos merely mirrored their private identities and affinities—their loves and pursuits.”