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Convicts, blue bloods, seamen, and circus freaks; Pacific Islanders, Arctic dwellers, and ancient Egyptians: the historical list of the tattooed is long and winding. Continually reinvented in each time and place, the tattoo reveals a consistent paradox—the impulse to create an indelible mark on that most transient of canvases, the human body. The permanent ink of tattoo can express bravery, creativity, spiritual awakening, or defiance—and sometimes, all of these things simultaneously.

According to Tattoo History: A Source Book,edited by Steve Gilbert ’52, injecting pigment into the skin for lifelong adornment has been identified as an active practice of many cultures. Archeological sites in Europe have yielded instruments believed to be used for tattooing during the Upper Paleolithic period, and mummies unearthed in such distinct locales as Egypt, Siberia, and Peru feature various marks of tattoo. In the classical era the Greeks and Romans tattooed their slaves and criminals, and documented the fierce tattoos of Britons, Gauls, Goths, and other barbarians. As Christendom grew stronger, though, tattooing increasingly fell out of favor. Pope Hadrian I banned the practice in 787, sending Western tattoo in to an eclipse that would last for almost a thousand years.

Meanwhile, in the kinder climate of the South Seas, tattoo was enjoying a golden age. The most highly developed expression of the art form in the ancient world, Polynesian tattoo varied from island to island but was characterized by geometrical designs that covered the entire body like intricate black lace. Performed with crude implements and natural pigments, the process was slow and excruciating, yet was experienced as a desirable passage to adulthood and displayed with great pride. Captain James Cook’s expeditions to the South Pacific in the late eighteenth century helped create European awareness of this practice, naming it henceforth in English after the Tahitian word tatou.
Gilbert_portrait"Tattooing is a kick-ass business. It’s exciting—it gets your adrenaline going, like performing onstage. It’s difficult and stressful, and that makes it interesting". While this sounds like it would come from a current Reedie immersed in the neo-tribal, body-adorned counterculture, it actually comes from the ranks of Reed’s post-WWII generation.

Steve Gilbert ’52 first explored the seductive world of tattooing as a Portland teenager. Too young to enter the waterfront shop of local tattooist Sailor George Fosdick, he pressed his nose against the window and soaked in the salty ambiance. “On the walls were beautiful drawings of sailing ships, anchors, roses, dragons, eagles, snakes, and naked women. The whole scene seemed at once dangerous and fascinating,” he remembers. “The images on the wall spoke to me of travel, adventure, danger, and sex. In my impressionable young mind tattooing became indelibly associated with these things.”

At Reed Gilbert pursued a combined degree from Reed and the Museum Art School, writing his thesis on woodcarving. Later, a stint in the Army Medical Corps led to a notable career in medical illustration on the faculty of the University of Toronto. The seven pictorial anatomy books that Gilbert has written and illustrated since the 1960s are widely used reference works by students of anatomy throughout the world. Yet the world of tattoo beckoned, and in the early 1970s Gilbert traveled to Japan to study tebori, the centuries-old Asian method of tattooing by hand. Currently, as a resident tattoo artist at the Abstract Tattoo Studio in Toronto, he offers clients historically based designs using both modern and traditional techniques.

A glimpse into Gilbert’s tattoo portfolio reveals a subtle and dynamic aesthetic vision—in one photo, a crimson carp swims sinuously through water down a woman’s back; in another, a fantastic beast first discovered on an Iron Age mummy now adorns a living shoulder.

Last year Gilbert edited Tattoo History: A Source Book, a collection of historical accounts of tattooing from a range of observers, including explorers, physicians, criminologists, anthropologists, and tattoo artists. Gilbert attributes the recent renaissance of tattoo—evidenced in a plethora of websites, publications, and conferences—to the same forces that have always served to advance this unique art form.

For his part, when he visited Washington, D.C., in May to address a medical conference on the history of embryology, Gilbert offered tattoos to interested fellow attendees. Perhaps an artfully placed griffin or two might be in order at his 50th Reed reunion in 2002?

In Japan tattoo evolved from a method first used to mark prisoners into an aesthetically complex practice shaped by other trends in the visual arts. The eighteenth century gave birth to various expressions of Japanese popular culture, including sumo wrestling, Kabuki theatre, and ukiyo-e wood block prints—the “pictures of the floating world” that illustrated popular novels and plays of the day. When the Chinese novel Suikoden was translated into Japanese, its story of a band of outlaws fighting corruption captured the national imagination and helped promote tattooing in the bargain. Leading ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi created the definitive illustrations of the novel, each featuring one of the heroes elaborately tattooed with emblems of his personality, such as flowers, dragons, or tigers. Widely available, these images invoked a popular demand for tattoo in spite of official prohibitions against it.

Ukiyo-e was also the source of the artwork that Japanese tattooists adapted for their work and passed on from generation to generation. The hallmark of traditional Japanese tattooing remains its use of a unified full color design covering the back, chest, arms, or legs. Each portion of the image is associated with traits such as courage or loyalty. Rather than simply placing a static image on the human body, Japanese tattoo strives to reflect the dynamic connection between the person and his chosen symbols.

The Polynesian and Japanese threads of tattoo converged in nineteenth-century England, where tattooing became more popular than anywhere else in Europe. Visits to the South Pacific taught English sailors the basic trade, and many came back to set up shop in English seaports, while officers and dignitaries traveled to Japan to be tattooed by the masters at work there. The Prince of Wales (later Edward II) not only received a Japanese tattoo but also later sent his two sons to Japan to be decorated by the same artist. His example encouraged other European royalty and socialites to go under the needle, and a brief tattoo fad spread among the elite in 1890s England and America. Soon enough, however, the aristocratic craze faded and tattoo regained its slightly unsavory reputation.


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