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Tattoo Culture > View Culturama

Tattooing in the Navy 1908

A Naval Surgeon records the past

by britishinkArtist

December 11, 2011

The Art of the Tattoo in the Navy (as Seen by a Navy Medical Officer in 1908)

In 1908, while serving aboard USS Indianapolis, Navy Surgeon Ammen Farenholt decided to conduct a study on practice of personal adornment in the Navy. His findings first published in the U.S. Navy Medical Bulletin (1908) are a fascinating time capsule offering a glimpse into the habits and interests of our Navy ancestors.

 

Tattooing in the Navy, as shown by the records of the USS Independence

Probability no class of persons has the opportunity to see such an amount and variety of tattooing as that upon whom duty of physical examination for a military or naval service devolves, and undoubtedly the latter presents the richer field. Why this form of personal adornment should be so popular with those whose profession it is to follow the sea is difficult to explain; but custom and sentiment without doubt keep alive a practice which, in the early days, was the mark of a true deep-water sailor and a necessary requisite to the beau ideal. The custom probably originated among the natives of the south-sea islands where at one time it was almost universally in vogue, whence it was carried by admiring voyagers to home ports an in turn imitated by the envious. The name is considered to have been derived from the Tahitian word "tatu," of the same meaning.

While tattooing originated as an adornment of uncivilized peoples, it is far less common among them to-day [sic] than it was formerly, partly through the influence of missionaries; partly, also through the influence of public sentiment; and partly through Government interference, as is at present the case in Japan. On the other hand the total extent of this habit had probably never been greater than it is at the present time. Although it may be there is a slight decrease in the percentage of tattooed persons who adopt the sea as a means of livelihood, there is certainly a marked increase among those who travel and even among those live at a large distance from the influences of the sea. There is hardly any large city but has one or more professional tattooers, often ex-man-of-warsmen or Japanese, who advertise freely and who cater to the lure of this fascination.

Lombroso states that few people, with the fortunate exception of sailors, are tattooed who are not of the criminal class, or degenerate. While on shore it is probable that the custom is chiefly confined to the lower orders of society, the same cannot be said of the seagoing population. I have recently examined the enlistment records of 3,572 men, being the enlistments on this vessel for a period of eight and one-half years, and have obtained the following data for that portion of our enlisted force:

Percentage of men found tattooed on examination for second and subsequent enlistments.......................................53.61
Percentage of men found to be tattooed on examination for first enlistment.......................................23.01

While the former figures give a fair estimate of tattooing among the "old timers," it is a trifle under the correct estimate for the service as a whole, and I think it would be nearer the truth to say that about 60 per cent of persons who have served over ten years are thus marked. On the other hand it is not fair to assume that 23 per cent of all male civilians are tattooed because that was found to be the percentage among those who presented themselves for first enlistment, as a considerable proportion of applicants are seafaring men and as it is probable that some men conceal previous service. On inquiry, however, I have been surprised to find so many, probably 8 per cent of the recruits, who are tattooed and who deny having been at sea or even having lived in seaport towns. I think the custom is more common in camps and in places where men are collected in large numbers than is ordinarily imagined.

The designs were found to have been placed in the following locations according to numerical preponderance: (1) Forearms; (2) arms; (3) chest; (4) shoulders; (5) hands; (6) wrists; (7) legs; (8) feet; (9) back; (10) face; (11) penis.

The conventional designs in order of frequency were the following: (1) Letters; (2) coats of arms; (3) flags; (4) anchors; (5) eagles and birds; (6) stars; (7) female figures; (8) ships; (9) clasped hands; (10) dagger; (11) crosses; (12) bracelets; (13) hearts.

Letters, mottoes, initials, and allied devices lead the list and constitute about 26 per cent of all ink marks. Coats of arms and national emblems follow with about 25 per cent, then flags, anchors, etc., as is shown by the list above. Female figures are shown in 18 per cent of all tattooing; but if all figures in which women are shown, such as nude women, Gibson heads, sailor and girl, and portraits, are included, the percentage rises to 33, one in every three men tattooed selecting a design, some part of which is a female figure. Less than 1 per cent show indecent subjects; almost invariably such designs have been covered by other work, as also frequently have letters, names, and the once common tombstone scene. The usual types were found, among them, such as: H-O-L-D-F-A-S-T (a letter on the back of each finger); apprentice knot; pig on dorsum of foot, which among the older men was supposed to shield its possessor from death by drowning; crucifix, which in case of death would insure Christian burial in a Christian country, and "Jerusalem cross," which would answer the same purpose on Moslem shores. Of the latter there were 14, all in reenlisted men. One man was adorned with a sock covering each foot and extending above the ankles; another with a fox-hunting scene, the dogs in full cry over the abdomen, up over the shoulder, down the back, and the fox almost reaching the buttocks. The entire back was covered in one case by a large Masonic column and globe. "Little Egypt" figured in two cases and a copy of a Schlitz beer trade-mark in one. The penis was found to be tattooed in 7 cases, 3 on the glands and 4 on the sides; one of the former represented the American flag. The following designs were found to be more popular on reenlistment than among those who came directly from civil life: Goddess of liberty, ships, eagles, pigs, and apprentice knots.

Farenholt A: Tattooing in the Navy, as shown by records of the USS Independence. U.S. Naval Medical Bulletin, vol 2, number 2, pp 37-39, 1908.

 

Notes:

"Gibson girls" --- Artistic creations of Charles Dana Gibson in the late 19th century/early 20th century. Gibson's "Girls" were considered the models of ideal American feminine beauty.

"Little Egypt" --- Stage name of the belly dancer Ashea Wabe who garnered celebrity after appearing at Colombian Exposition of 1893.

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