New (Old) Tattoo Books

We’ve recently acquired a couple of fantastic books featuring photographs of early 20th century tattoos–one French, and one German.

The first book is a 1934 volume of Dr. J. Lacassagne’s Albums du Crocodile, improbably written for an audience of medical school alumni from the Hospices Civils de Lyon and focusing on tattoos in the French criminal underworld.

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Title page of “Albums du Crocodile” showcasing a delightfully gothic French prisoner’s tattoo

Author Jean Lacassagne was the head of the prison medical service at Lyon, son of the founder of the Lyonnais School of Criminology.

The book’s photographs* feature mostly-anonymous, heavily-tattooed prisoners, both male and female, in various states of undress (and many completely nude). (*We want to acknowledge that it’s not clear whether the subjects of these photographs consented to the photography or whether they, more likely, were compelled to display their bodies and tattoos for the doctor’s camera.)

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A jaunty French sailor in, ahem, scant clothing, with copious chest and arm tattoos.

Female prisoners are present only in a section about prostitutes, and the author considers their “low-quality” tattoos an early sign of impending ruin.

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An example of a “vaccin d’amour” tattoo.

The only prisoner who is identified by name in this volume is Louis-Marius Rambert, referred to as “L’assassin d’Ecully.” (He and an accomplice murdered two people with a hammer, a crime for which he was sentenced to death.)

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Rambert’s chest stars a “magnifique tatouage polychrome,” a pink, green, and blue image of an eagle fighting a dragon from a Shanghai tattoo artist.

As described in the caption above, Rambert willed his skin to author Lacassagne before his death by tuberculosis in 1934, as a sign of gratitude for the doctor’s services. Lacassagne carefully preserved the prisoner’s skin, and this colorful tattoo was later used in the binding of Rambert’s own manuscript memoirs. (!!!!!!) (We’d like to thank bookseller Brian Cassidy for drawing our attention to this gruesome story.)

The second book from this fascinating acquisition is the 1926 Bildnerei der Gefangenen, a book of prisoners’ art.

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Title page of Bildnerei der Gefangenen, with a stunning reproduction of a watercolor.

Author Hans Prinzhorn was a psychiatrist who documented outsider art from mentally ill and incarcerated artists. This book includes sections on illustrations, clay sculptures, and playing cards, as well as thieves’ symbols and prisoners’ carvings.

A section at the end of the book features photos from the Hamburg police department of heavily tattooed men and women who were taken into police custody.

We noticed, upon close examination, that two of the men in the photos (below) have very similar tattoos, one reading “Only For Lady” and one reading “Nur für Damen”– we can only assume that these are instances of artistically inked homophobia, but are sincerely curious if any of our readers are tattoo anthropologists and can tell us more about these. Was this a widespread practice in the 1920s?

If you’re interested in viewing these books, or any other materials related to the history of tattoos, get in touch to make a research appointment!

Creative Fellowship update

Today’s blog post is an update from our 2020 Creative Fellow, Kelly Eriksen, who’s been making a deep dive into our Special Collections and planning out a sound installation for the spring.

“Last week I got to go on a really exciting hard hat tour of the Providence Public Library renovations.”

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“The tour was a great opportunity to move through the old/new space and to gain an understanding of how the public will eventually use it.”

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“Starting to get clearer and clearer ideas for installation. More details to come!”

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“Big thanks to Aaron Peterman for giving a great tour and answering all of my (so many) questions!”

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Thanks, Kelly! Stay tuned to see what she’s up to in the new year!

Announcing our 2020 Creative Fellow

We’re delighted to announce PPL’s new Creative Fellow: Kelly Eriksen, a Providence-based multimedia artist with a background in glass and an interest in “how the things that we interact with every day can be viewed as materials with which we can work and play.”

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Over the coming 8 months, Kelly will do research in our Special Collections and design a sound installation related to the topic of journalism as part of our 2020 exhibition and program series.

We love that Kelly’s work is both conceptual and interactive, and we’re so excited to see what she creates!

Reminder and Researchers

A quick reminder: applications for our 2020 Creative Fellowship are due this coming Tuesday, October 1st.

Now that you’ve been reminded, we’re excited to tell you that Special Collections materials are (mostly) moved into their new homes in our renovated, climate-controlled stacks!!! (The news is exciting enough to merit some rule-breaking punctuation.) We have twelve fancy air conditioning units that control and monitor temperature, air distribution, and humidity, keeping our books happy and stable.

Now that we’ve moved, we’re able to take classes and researchers on a limited basis (due to space considerations during the ongoing renovation). Get in touch if you’d like to make an appointment!

Call for Proposals: 2020 Creative Fellowship

Providence Public Library is now accepting applications for our 2020 Creative Fellowship.

 

The 2020 Creative Fellow will create new, original work in the field of music or sound related to the topic of Journalism, as part of the Library’s 2020 exhibition and program series tentatively titled “The King Is Dead.”

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Learn more about our annual Creative Fellowship and the work of past Fellows, or read the full call for proposals.

Proposals must be submitted by October 1, 2019.

Moving Our Special Collections

We’ve been in FULL SWING with the first phase of moving our collections into their new, climate-controlled stacks. It’s involved copious sweat, a few tears, and minimal blood, but our art and architecture folios are now on designated shelving, and our Rhode Island collections are settling into their new homes.

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We couldn’t have done it without tireless and meticulous help from a fantastic team from William B. Meyer. Phase two of our moving will begin in a couple of weeks – stay tuned for updates!

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Renovation Update and a Giant Bat

“Hey, Special Collections Librarians,” we can hear you thinking, “where have you been?”

Renovation has been kicking into high gear over here at the Providence Public Library.

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Workers create an open stairwell through the building’s many floors.

We’ve been cleaning and packing materials in preparation for our move into newly-renovated, climate-controlled stacks. We’ve vacuumed many of our books with a special HEPA vacuum to clean them before they’re loaded onto carts, and we’ve been setting shelves to hold our materials in their new space. Delicate items are getting wrapped, and Jordan has been making a Herculean effort to track every book’s current and future location through color-coded spreadsheets and maps. Everything is topsy-turvy (but in a collections-preserving manner, don’t worry).

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Part of this space will eventually be our new exhibition gallery.

We’re not taking research requests or appointments at the moment, as most of our collections are inaccessible. We’re hoping to have completed the move by late July or August; we’ll post an update on this blog and on our social media once we’re taking new reference questions and research appointments. In the meantime, you can always check the PPL website for updates about the building transformation, or visit our colleagues at the Rhode Island State Archives, Providence City Archives, Rhode Island Historical Society, and other awesome local institutions for all of your research needs.

To tide you over for the next month or two, here’s an exciting illustration of a giant bat soaring above a cathedral (taken from a children’s book about animals called On Four Feet):

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