An Early Description of a Professional Tattoo Kit from the German Underworld

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Near the end of the 19th century a pickpocket was arrested in the German town of Mainz. This was in itself an ordinary occurrence, but in his belongings were discovered a notebook full of drawings, many of them categorized by profession, along with vials of red and black ink and wooden needles, all housed in a spectacle case. The drawings in the album were templates for tattoos, and the man claimed to have purchased this kit from a tattoo artist in the mountains, who specialized in the sale of these kits – perhaps named Joseph Ragozet.

 

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The kit so fascinated judge Fritz Eller that he sent along a description of the kit, along with photographs of the drawings, to the sociologist and criminologist Franz Gross, which is how this early and valuable documentation of a portable tattoo kit in the German underworld came to be published in a periodical devoted to criminal anthropology. Like much of the scarce early modern research into tattoos, it comes from a criminological or medical standpoint. Gross was fascinated enough by the case to contribute a foreward to the article, in which he makes the claim that this may be the first description of such a commercial, portable kit. There must have been earlier descriptions – if you know of any, please get in touch.

 

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Eller fortunately goes into some detail on the method of tattooing. The design is first drawn onto the flesh with the drawing as a template and then the long wooden needles, also dipped in ink, puncture the skin. Smaller tattoos could be done in as little time as a quarter of an hour with this method. According to this account, the wooden needles were very painful, and customers often vomited or passed out from the pain, or interrupted the process, often leaving a partial tattoo.

 

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The drawings are strikingly beautiful, direct in line but finely detailed and very expressive. The division according to occupation is especially fascinating from an anthropological standpoint, indicating the sort of workers who might get a tattoo – there are plenty of designs for seamen, of course, but also portrayed are Seiltänzerin (funambulist or tightrope walker), Kufeltänzerin (juggler), Ballspieler (ball player?), zirkusreiterin (circus rider), Räuberhauptmann (Robber chief), Maurer (bricklayer), Bäcker (baker), Barbier (barber), Metzger (butcher), taubenkönigin, Schlosser (locksmith), Kutscher (coachman), etc.  – all the best occupations, though unfortunately we don’t find one for bookseller.

 

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Eller, Fritz. ‘Ein Vorlagebuch für Tätowierungen’ in Archiv für Kriminal-Anthropologie und Kriminalistik 19. Band, 1. u 2. Heft. Leipzig: Verlag von F. C. W. Vogel, 1905. 8vo, 207 pp, rebound at an early date in brown leatherette over marbled boards, titled in gilt at the spine.

Please visit the Tattooing section of our website to view other rare tattoo books at DL.

The Character of the Tattoo in Modern Europe

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Rudolf Erhard Riecke (1869-1939) was a dermatologist and the first director of the influential department of skin and venereal diseases at the University of Gottingen. In 1925, as an outgrowth of his research he published Das Tatauierungswesen im Heutigen Europa. The book has never been translated into English, or reprinted, as far as I can tell in any language, which is unfortunate as it is one of the most valuable early studies of the early modern European tattoo.

Riecke compared the symbolism of the modern tattoo, especially with regard to erotic and criminal tattoos, as found  on the bodies of circus performers, seamen, criminals and members of the underworld, and concluded that the motivations and symbolism of the modern European tattoo were distinct from the conclusions of anthropological studies of non-Western cultures at the time.

The latter part of the book is taken up with a generous section of b/w photographic plates reproducing 94 photographs of tattoos – certainly one of the most important published photographic records we have of its kind. A number of the tattoos are erotic, and there is one excellent photograph of a full penis tattoo (fig. 80).

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The Tattoo Historian website has a great post on the mystery posed by an excised example of this plate in a library copy of the book.

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Riecke, Erhard. Das Tatauierungswesen im Heutigen Europa. Jena: Gustav Fischer, 1925. 4to, 40 pp. + 24 photographic plates, reproducing 94 photographs.

 Contact us if you’d like to be informed about the availability of this title from Division Leap, or to be notified about future examples we might find in our travels.

What Would Happen If I Were to Stand Up?

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I first encountered the art of James Francis Horrabin in his illustrations for his friend H. G. Well’s The Outline of History, the work for which he is best known. Luckily, that led me to Horrabin’s own work, such as the fascinating The Plebs Atlas (1926) – which along with his other works on mapping, represent one of the most sustained pre-WWII efforts at a radical, socialist cartography.

Before yesterday’s mail, however, I’d never seen his striking cover illustration for the Plebs League pamphlet Do Your Own Thinking, which shows that Horrabin also had an eye for mapping more abstract social spaces as well. A muscular worker – The Man Underneath – kneels on one knee beneath a table on which dance a line of pudgy men and women in evening wear. Our worker casts a grave and thoughtful eye towards the reader, and states, rather than asks, “I’m just thinking what would happen if I were to stand up!”

 

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[Horrabin, J. F.]. Do Your Own Thinking. London: Plebs League, nd [c. 1920’s]. First edition. Small 8vo, 14 pp, saddle-stapled illustrated wraps. Inquire.

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Guido Boggiani and the Indelible Marking of the Skin

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In 1895, the Ethnologist Guido Boggiani read a paper at the Secondo Congresso Geografico Italiano concerning the designs on the skin of two Peruvian mummies in an Italian museum. A pamphlet of the talk was published, entitled Tatuaggio o Pittura? In which Boggiani made the claim that these pictures on the skin were paintings rather then tattoos, as earlier writers such as Joest had asserted. Boggiani made the claim that the indelible quality of the images was achieved by the use of a dye extracted from the plant Genipa Oblongifolia, also known as Genipapo, which had a corrosive effect on the skin, which caused a more lasting effect then other dyes. It was also thought to ward off spirits.

 

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This booklet is illustrated with six drawings which are painstaking reconstructions of the designs found on the mummies, as well as two full page more natural drawings of the limbs of the mummies in a natural posture, as above. In all of these drawings Boggiani’s extreme fascination for this art on the skin is obvious. It is perhaps natural that Boggiani argued for this skin art to be that of painting, because he was first trained as a painter, and a successful one at that. His paintings sold for large sums at an early age.

Boggiani was drawn into ethnology during a votage to exhibit his paintings in Buenos Aires, where he met several expatriate Italians whose accounts of Paraguay led him to embark on a new career as an ethnologist, making return trips to the Americas to collect artifacts.

 

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In the year after this booklet is published, however, Boggiani would return to Asuncion convinced that photography was the best way to capture the indigenous people he chose to study, and the photos he left behind – some of which are now held by the Ethnological Museum of Berlin – are valued as important early work in ethnological photography and the photography of tattoos.

 

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Boggiani’s embrace of the young medium of photography may have led to his death. Though the exact circumstances of his demise are unknown, he was found in a remote area of the Gran Chaco with his skull destroyed and his camera and negatives buried in the ground around him. It was widely believed at the time that these measures were an effort to suppress the threat of photography.

This particular example of the booklet is intriguing as it has a distribution stamp from a bookstore in Asunción, the last city where Boggiani was seen alive. Even at the time this was probably a very academic publication with a limited distribution. It may be irresponsible conjecture, but I wonder if this may have been one of a number of copies Boggiani may have brought to Asunción himself.

Boggiani, Guido. Tatuaggio o Pittura? Studio Intorno ad una Curiosa Usanza Delle Popolazioni Indigene Dell’Antico Peru. Roma: Stabilimento Tipografico G. Civelli, 1895. First edition. Small 4to, 32 [2] pp, printed wraps. Text in Italian. Illustrated with 6 reproductions in the text, and two full page reproductions following the text, all from drawings by Boggiani. Includes bibliographic references. Contemporary bookstore stamp from Libreria y Papeleria Asuncion to cover.

Moderately toned, with some short tears and chipping to margins, and foxing to margins, aforementioned bookstore stamp, but very good. Scarce in the trade. Inquire

 

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