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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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!