It was both the scandal and fascination of the age. In 1881, the Queen’s grandson and the future King George V, then just 16, received what’s been a rite of passage for many teenagers ever since: a tattoo of a blue and red dragon on his arm, done by an artist in Yokohama.
In newspapers back home, rumours had abounded for weeks that the young royal would soon sport the must-have fad of the age. Some stories wrote that the prince had already had a large arrow inked down his nose. Such was the belief in the tattoo’s existence that his mother, Alexandra of Denmark, wrote a furious letter to her son.
There was no face tattoo. But his inked arm, shown publicly for the first time during his audience with the Emperor Meiji, gave the royal seal of approval to an increasingly popular trend.
apan’s restoration in 1868 had opened up the country for trade to the West for the first time in centuries. Almost immediately, demand for both Japanese products and culture soared. Wealthy European aristocrats began to return home bearing Japanese artwork on their bodies. Now, the news of the prince’s design established a fashionable industry of tattooing in Britain, France and even the US: it became a show of social status – and of the ability to afford such commodities.
“The tattooing of the future king was such a famous moment that there was a drawing imagining what it might look like in the souvenir pull-out for George’s marriage in 1893,” says Matt Lodder, a lecturer in contemporary art at the University of Essex. “So everyone knew that if you were wealthy and went to Japan, the done thing was to come back with a tattoo.”
But while George was perceived at the time as a trendsetter, he was continuing a pattern which had existed for centuries. Since the time of Julius Caesar, the British had repeatedly helped popularise the art of tattooing around the world.
The first proven tattoos in history date back around 5,000 years to the marks on Otzi the Iceman, a mummy found in the Alps straddling Austria and Italy. But in Europe, it became the early Britons who made the art famous: when the Romans invaded in 55 BC, they found the natives to be resplendent in body art. As Caesar wrote in his account of the Gallic Wars, “All the Britons dye themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible.”
Such was the effect of their appearance that they became known throughout Europe as the Pretani, a Celtic word meaning the ‘painted’ or the ‘tattooed’ ones. From that, the name Britain was eventually derived.
Some have argued that the Britons were only painted, not tattooed. Still, later Roman scholars were convinced that what Caesar saw was ink. “That region is partly held by barbarians who from childhood have different pictures of animals skillfully implanted on their bodies so that as the man grows, so grow the marks painted on him,” wrote Gaius Julius Solinus in the 3rd Century.
“There is nothing more that they consider as a test of patience than to have their limbs soak up the maximum amount of dye through these permanent scars.” When the Normans arrived in 1066, they too would discover the British fondness for tattoos. In the 12th Century, the chronicler William of Malmesbury described how tattooing was one of the first practices the Normans adopted from the natives.
But the modern story of tattooing in Britain begins with the colonial encounters in the Americas. The explorer and privateer Martin Frobisher made a number of expeditions to the New World between 1576 and 1578; he discovered tattooing was commonplace among the Native American tribes, from modern-day Canada all the way down to the south-west.
In 1577, Frobisher took three Inuit hostages and brought them back for display across Britain from Bristol to London – even showing them to Queen Elizabeth at court. The general public was shocked by the sight of their body artwork. To assuage their fears, the artist John White was commissioned to paint both portraits of the Inuit captives – and comparison illustrations of the ancient Britons, based on accounts from Roman scholars.
“There are these amazing images which he derives from classical descriptions of the ancient Britons, depicting them covered in these ridiculously incredible tattoos,” Lodder says. “Huge lions on their stomachs, and suns and flowers for the women. They were done to show that these people who had been brought over were not so different from us.”