A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words
How tattoos and language are intertwined
By Heather Breaux
“Sponge and bucket was the decades-old standard: ink, blood, wipe it off, squeeze it out, throw it back in the bucket.”
That’s how Ed Hardy described the atmosphere of Painless Nell’s (née Nellie Bohnak) tattoo shop in San Diego when he stepped into it in 1969. As he put it, stepping into her shop was like stepping back in time. In the 1940s, Nellie Bohnak and her ex-Navy husband opened up a tattoo shop after leaving the Northeast carnival circuit. Together, the couple tattooed maritime flash — tattoo-industry speak for an easily repeatable printed or drawn design — on eager customers in the back of a penny arcade under glaring neon lights, amid a sea of white military caps on liberty in Sailortown, San Diego.
At the time, very few women gave tattoos. At best, tattooed women were exhibited to scrabbling audiences drooling over them as exotic circus side-show spectacles. Tattoos bespoke unholy parlors, lurid locations on the wrong side of town, and the lucrative dark market of exoticism — but Painless Nell was part of something new, writing history as she inked her tattoos.
Though she would not live to see it, she’s since become a symbol of the new world of tattoo, where it no longer communicates such deep-seated taboo and undoes the carnivalesque spectacle of the exotic. Since the dawn of time, the art of tattooing has served various purposes, all of them fundamentally tied to communication and language.
Tattoo as pictorial language
Tattoo — just like any other form of visual art — uses a sort of pictorial language to communicate cultural identity. For example, mummified remains of tattooed Incans dating back to the 11th century were discovered in South America in 1920. Steve Gilbert, a medical illustrator and acquaintance of Ed Hardy, wrote of other forms of historical evidence of tattoos in mummified remains in his book, Tattoo History: A Source Book, documenting the practice of tattoo in ancient Egypt.
While no known word for tattoo exists in the ancient Egyptian language, evidence suggests it was widely practiced. The Bremer Rhind papyrus is the closest textual reference to the practice, referring to women with the names Isis and Nephthys “inscribed” in their arms. The hieroglyph menu translates “inscribed” to “etch.”
Now, that might be the best textual reference to tattooing, but it’s the mummified remains of tattooed skin that give the most insight into the practice.
Mummified remains of ancient Egyptian women indicated that many of them were tattooed. Egyptologists have used this evidence to identify women who worked in temples and were part of religious rituals. Clearly, the ancient world had no qualms about putting indelible markings on their skin. The qualms over tattoo belong to the ancient west — tattoo as a taboo is as old as the identity of “the West” itself.
Gilbert explains that respectable ancient Greeks and Romans did not indulge in decorative tattooing: To them, tattoo was for the barbarians. The Greeks, though, learned the technique from the Persians and adopted the practice to mark enslaved people and criminals. The Romans picked up the practice from the Greeks and used tattoos to punish deserters. Tattoos eventually became synonymous with a shameful excommunication from polite society — something like a legal sentence declaring guilt and deviance.
Modern English vocabulary today reflects this ancient association of tattoo with criminality. The earliest recorded word in a European language to refer to “tattoos” was the Greek and Latin “stigma.” The original essence of this word is also reflected in our modern dictionaries: a mark of disgrace. Since the beginning of tattoo’s introduction to the Western world, society has largely understood it as a way to denote criminality, moral deviance, disloyalty, and otherness.
In fact, so ill-equipped to grapple with tattoo’s introduction into the west, modern English borrows an indigenous word as its own. The modern English word, “tattoo” was first written in 1769, in papers published following the then-Lieutenant James Cook’s first voyage on the HMS Endeavor to Australia. It’s the first mention in European literature of the Tahitian word, tatau. Our “tattoo” is a derivative from the Tahitian word “tatau,” meaning “to mark.”
According to the Royal Museums Greenwich website entries on Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks in Tahiti, “It has been suggested that ‘tatau’ is an onomatopoeic word. ‘Tat’ refers to tapping the tattooing instrument into the skin; ‘au’ to the cry of pain from the person being tattooed.” Again, the ancient practice of tattoo is the development of a pictorial language that resists verbalization, drawing its meaning and significance through shape, texture, color, and design. Oh, and even a little bit of pain.
Fig. 1: Giolo was a prince kidnapped from his homeland and later exhibited in London as a curiosity.
Tattoo as cultural identity
Understanding the meaning of this ancient pictorial language, then, implies the importance of cultural identity and its intersection with language. Cultural fluency and the meaning of tattoo is woven into Samoan muāgagana, or proverbs. In their 2022 paper, researchers Dion Enari and Lorayma Taula took a look at language loss in the Samoan diaspora, largely caused by European colonization in Polynesia.
“Indigenous people experience their worlds simultaneously through and because of language itself, including tattoo. ‘Tā muamua le gutu ‘ona tā ai lea ‘o le tino’ — the literal translation for this muāgagana means one must first strike — (tattoo) — their mouth before they strike — tattoo — their body,” wrote Enari and Taula. “An analysis of this muāgagana implies that one must first validate their life by learning to speak Samoan before validating their status and adorning their bodies with Samoan tattoos.”
Gaining cultural fluency is a means of understanding and preserving the Samoan language. So when we look at things through this lens, tattoo becomes a deeply important tool for social cohesion and identity among Samoans. Europeans arriving in Polynesia grappled with their identity as foreigners and fixated on the practice of tattoo as the ultimate symbol of exotic otherness.
Crafted from ship logs like Cook’s and Banks, a new genre of travel literature fanned the flames of a European fascination with the “exotic” writings of far-off island life. “
“In many Pacific islands, the first European settlers were missionaries who opposed tattooing because of its association with native religious practices that they saw as superstition and sorcery,” Gilbert wrote. “Hard on the heels of the missionaries came colonists, who squabbled over possession of the islands, plundered natural resources, and forced the natives to wear European clothing and work at menial jobs. Because tattooing was associated with the traditional Polynesian way of life, it became a symbol of resistance to European influence and was outlawed by many colonial regimes.”
For European colonists, asserting cultural dominance meant the prohibition of tattoo. This was, of course, an aggressive act of cultural erasure, given what we know from the Samoan proverbs. You cannot erase a tattoo from someone’s skin, but if you ban the practice outright, you ultimately erase a significant aspect of a group’s cultural identity.
Fig. 2: With colonization, sailors became agents of change and tattooage soon became associated with their stories of danger, bravery, and valor.
Meanwhile, westerners continued to stigmatize tattoo by objectifying tattooed people as a form of entertainment. Europeans kidnapped tattooed islanders, bringing them back as living curios and establishing an exploitative market around exoticism and tattoo in the West. Take, for example, Giolo, the so-called “Famous Painted Prince.” In 1690, Giolo was enslaved by owners who went to great pains to promote his public appearances. In his early years, Giolo was a prince kidnapped from his homeland and later exhibited in London as a curiosity.
Two full-length portraits engraved and published as illustrations for a broadsheet introduced him to the London scene. A broadsheet from 1692 advertised Giolo little more than an exotic spectacle.
“This admirable person is about the age of 30, graceful, and well proportioned in all his limbs, extremely modest and civil, neat and cleanly, but his language is not understood, neither can he speak English,” the article reads.
Giolo was not exhibited for his oratory capacity. The allure was his full body set of traditional tattoos — an unintelligible shock to European eyes. The fine print reads, “This famous Painted Prince is the just wonder of the age, his whole body (except face, hands, and feet) is curiously and most exquisitely painted or stained full of variety of invention, with prodigious art and skill performed … The paint itself is so durable, that nothing can wash it off, or deface the beauty of it: It is prepared from the juice of a certain herb or plant, peculiar to that country, which they esteem infallible to preserve human bodies from the deadly poison or hurt of any venomous creatures whatsoever.” To test this, and to make a pretty penny, Giolo’s owners surrounded him with snakes and venomous creatures to prove the power of the paint.
Fig. 3: Tattoo designs by Sailor Jerry ultimately came to define the North American style of tattoo.
Two hundred years later, Giolo and the legendary tattoos remained a fascination of the academic class: If Giolo’s humanity wasn’t degraded by his tattoos, it was still a direct challenge to the supremacy of European’s sans-tattoo identity. An 1884 French treatise by Edouard Garnier quotes the London broadsheet, elaborating that Giolo’s tattoos included an impressive back piece: “We also report that he has a tattoo of a map on his large back, showing the states his father ruled, as well as surrounding regions, in all, a quarter of the entire universe.”
Diversity of physical appearance — which tattoos create — inspires existential anxiety in colonizing Europe. They test the limitations of their knowledge with discussions of identity, dominion, and ethics. This is a common theme in the literature of the era — take, for example, Jules Verne’s 1869 Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which investigates the limits of human knowledge and explores the concept of dominion and possession. These works echo the sentiment of early colonizers, represented in works like Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726. Of course, by the 1890s, French texts show that tattoos were now known to be ink and subdermal pricks — not just supernatural paint stains. But the existential meaning of tattoo for European society remained elusive. While knowledge spread about the technical application of tattoos, their power to define a culture had significant ramifications and merited continued study as it exploded in popularity among sailors.
Tattoo as nautical resilience
With the cultural collision that occurred with colonization, sailors became the next agents of change when it came to the meanings communicated by tattoo. While religious colonizers were banning the practice of tattoo on the South Pacific islands, the practice exploded back in French and British homeport towns and cities.
At this moment in history, tattoo experienced something of a divorce from its historical origins. Western taboos eased as it became increasingly separate from indigenous identity. Sailors returned home with fresh body ink, and tattooage soon became associated with their stories of danger, bravery, and valor. These tattoos marked nautical milestones achieved, and you had to speak the language of career sailors to understand: a swallow for every nautical mile underway, a twisted rope signifying the rank of deckhand, a star representing home and true north, and more.
According to Carol Clark’s book, Vintage Tattoos: the Book of Old-School Skin Art, the most intricate tattoos were detailed designs of full-rigged tall ships with full sails set, located in the center of the wearer’s back, perhaps an adoption of traditions like Giolo’s stunning map backpiece.
“Early seafarers in the South Pacific were entitled to a sailing-ship tattoo if they completed the perilous voyage around Cape Horn,” Clark wrote in the book. “According to other traditions, the same journey gave a sailor the right to a small, blue, five-pointed star on the left ear. Five trips around the Cape would enable him to match it on his right ear. Ten trips and he earned red forehead markings.”
Like those early sailors bringing indigenous tattoo to Europe, modern sailors handed these traditions down well into the modern day.
Sailors formed their own network and adjacent underworld, and it was this intimate network that catalyzed the American tattoo renaissance. It was in Phil Sparrow’s Oakland tattoo parlor that Ed Hardy decided to dedicate his life to tattooing full-time. Sparrow had paid Amund Dietzel, “a grand old man of tattoo,” and former Norwegian sailor in Chicago, to teach him to tattoo. Sarah Bionditch details the fascinating life of Milwaukee’s tattooing legend for the publication Shepherd.
Dietzel began tattooing in Milwaukee in 1907 after a stint in the carnival as a tattooed man. Later, Dietzel profited off the wartime-rush of Navy sailors coming through the Great Lakes’ military bases. He later sold his famous (and lucrative) shop to his friend Gibs “Tatts” Thomas in 1964. The two worked together until 1967 until Dietzel’s death. It was Thomas who taught a young Sailor Jerry how to use the electric tattoo pen, setting the stage for Sailor Jerry’s own penchant for innovation and improvement to tattoo technology in his shop in Hawaii. Ed Hardy idolized Sailor Jerry, and in a 1969 visit to Hawaii, he found himself in tattoo communion with the legend, discussing everything from the velocity of whirlwinds in tattoos to arcane Asian mythology.
“[Sailor Jerry] held master’s papers on practically every vessel afloat and was a stickler for details such as ship’s rigging and nautical symbols in tattoo designs,” Hardy once said. Sailor Jerry’s designs ultimately came to define the North American style of tattoo.
Tattoo as self-expression
Instead of evolving like a language does — wherein speakers themselves drive change though turns of speech, variances in pronunciation, etc. — tattoo came to evolve more along the pattern of a technological innovation in the 20th century. That is, tattoo as a practice had been tuned and optimized for efficiency, profit, and repeatability, not unlike the automobile or telephone. Electric tattoo pens made application easier and faster; better sanitation arrived with regulations requiring the use of the autoclave to replace sponge-and-bucket parlors.
In the end, tattoos were inked faster, and with more repeatable tattoo designs. Old world tattoo design was customized among the underground wearers, but was slow, laborious, and prone to infection. An 1899 French text titled Tattoo Among The Prostitutes, written by Dr. Albert le Blonde and Dr. Albert Lucas, who practiced medicine together in Saint Lazare, Paris, included illustrations of tattoos he studied that indicate enormous variety and very little standardization in young women’s tattoos of the day.
And in a 2013 portrait gallery of the tattooed underworld entitled Bad Boys: Portraits of Tattoos, Jerome Pierrat and Eric Guillon assembled photos from the booking records that French police took of male prisoners from 1890 to 1930.
Through industrialization, globalization, and the world wars that touched everyone’s personal history, tattoo became a more ubiquitous phenomenon. Repetition is the key here, as Ed Hardy wrote in his memoir.
“Most American tattoos pretty much came off the same stencils,” he wrote in the book. “[Doc Webb] altered the style, but in a way that I thought was incredibly dopey. I was on a mission to bring art to tattooing and was not comfortable tattooing these things verbatim.”
Fig. 4: Today, tattoos are no longer a language perpetuating existence but simply an arbitrary aesthetic choice.
In another interview for Art for Life by Karin Breuer, Hardy explained his vision: “I graduated art school with my lofty ideals and told everybody I was going to be a tattooer and turn this into an art, but found myself in a relatively short order stamping Hot Stuff on sailors in San Diego.” He mastered the technique of tattoo application through rote repetition, but all that practice was optimized to make the shop profitable and keep up with the bi-weekly payday demand. But Hardy noticed that people kept coming into the shop with their own ideas. “Wear your dreams, right?” smirks Hardy: he wanted to go full-Rembrandt.
If flash is tattoo vocabulary, tattoo grammar is the ways in which the tattoos themselves collect upon the skin. Hardy traveled all the way to Japan in search of more vocabulary. Steeped in thousands of years of Japanese tattoo culture and ritual, he discovered a similarly limited tattoo grammar.
“In Japan, they were pretty much getting a rote vocabulary of images. Like the sailors in San Diego, they could only select from a limited menu,” Hardy wrote, detailing his experience training with the legendary Kazuo Oguri in Japan in the 1970s.
All the while, Hardy’s obsession with Japanese tattoo turned into a fusion of his own dreams: increased tattoo vocabulary through more agile tattoo grammar. Integrating Japanese images into his own American tattoo vocabulary opened up new epics he could write into reality — and it was timely too, given the 1970s obsession with all things Eastern. Not only could he move towards custom tattoo designs and larger pieces, covering whole backs, arms, and more visible locations, but it birthed American style tattoos into once-again customizable designs that became an art form of personal expression.
Modern tattoo entered the global cultural market and translated sailing tattoos into mainstream culture. Flash makes cash, as the saying goes, and in expanding American tattoo vocabulary and returning tattoo to its more customized roots, Hardy synthesized hundreds of years of maritime tattoo tradition with indigenous cultural tattoo. It leaped to the forefront of global pop culture in his deal with French fashion designer Christian Audigier in the early 2000s.
Audigier, who pioneered the Van Dutch designs in Los Angeles, gained the rights to Hardy’s Sailortown designs, which were heavily influenced by Sailor Jerry. Tattoos made their way onto T-shirts, sneakers, handbags, and more.
“In February 2005 at the MAGIC clothing trade show, this cultural meteor landed and annual sales went from $50 million to $100 million. By 2009, annual sales would exceed $700 million,” writes Hardy, if he’s to be believed.
Anyone could wear tattoos, and its commercial value and cultural potency could be measured, even if the general public was unaware of the rich traditions and significance the impermanent art carried.
“When I would start running into people wearing the designs and introduce myself, an enormous number of people did not know they had been tattoo designs,” Hardy writes. “They liked them for what they were. This iconic imagery, richly weighted with powerful symbolism, stands out in an age when everything had become more soft focus, more diffuse.”
Now, people could literally wear their tattoo dreams — and take them off as needed. Wearable flash has changed the language of tattoos forever. Because this pictorial language carries thousands of years of history, fashion capitalized on the power of the images but divorced the image from traditional nautical meanings. In discussion with Alan Govenar in an interview, Hardy said:
“It sets up this exotic world that lets you immediately step into the magical arena. It’s like, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, suspend your beliefs and here you are.’ You’re in the tent; it’s that whole carny thing.”
Never mind the problematic colonial world that exoticism comes from, never mind the way tattoo used to doom women to an exploited life at the carnival, like Prince Giolo. The tattooed man, that wisecracking, somewhat sinister, outside-of-polite-society pirate figure, who makes people say, “My God, this guy’s all tattooed; so what’s he all about?”
Thanks to Ed Hardy, we’ll never know just by looking at today’s tattoos. They are personally defined by each wearer, no longer a language perpetuating existence but simply an arbitrary aesthetic choice — just a bit more permanent than a T-shirt.
Heather Breaux is a reporter and editorial assistant at Latitude 38 Media. She writes about sailing, sustainability, and DEI