Thinking inking: Past and present tattooing

"Science Ink"
"Science Ink"
"Science Ink"

Learning about tattooing can be fascinating, whether or not you’re interested in getting inked yourself. A tattoo can represent permanence, and also be permanent, for an individual person. For people in general, or as a species, tattooing itself has had permanence, appearing throughout human history, though in varying ways in different cultures.

I like contemplating the story told by a specific tattoo, a story written in ink on a person. I’m intrigued in particular by how a tattoo both expresses and creates identity, within time and place. What aspects of tattooing might interest you? The following materials are great ones for thinking about inking, both past and present.

Books for investigating history and meaning:

  • Bodies of Subversion: a Secret History of Women and Tattoo, Revised Edition by Margot Mifflin – An in-depth history of tattooing and women, this volume specifically chronicles tattooed women and women tattooists, primarily in America and Great Britain, from the 19th century to the present day. Mifflin begins with the awareness that for women, “skin is a work in progress through which we celebrate – and denigrate – ourselves.” Her work investigates tattoos because “no form of skin modification is as layered with meaning as tattooing, especially for women.” This book is compelling reading, as Mifflin skillfully analyzes meaning while documenting women’s tattoos. The numerous photographs also are riveting, and I was captivated especially by the images of tattooed women from the 1880s.

  • Tattoo by Dale Rio and Eva Bianchini – A vivid survey, this book provides a useful general history of tattooing. Overall, the volume emphasizes changing styles, presenting numerous photos of individual tattoos – many brightly colored, some rather startling.

DVDs for exploring culture and process:

  • Tattoos – This film is a travel guide for tattooing in America. Host Daniel H. Wilson tours contemporary tattooing, while deciding whether to get a tattoo himself. The program does a good job documenting both the phenomenon and the mechanics of tattooing.
  • Ancient Ink – This is an adventurous account of tattooing in the world. Host Craig Reynolds travels widely and gets tattooed willingly, seeking to disclose antiquated tattooing practices, as well as current ones, in a variety of cultures. The result is a film that nicely calls attention to how a tattoo’s meanings are culturally specific.

Books for considering design and circulation:

  • The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide by Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor – The Word Made Flesh is a literary collection. Stories are being told here by people who love books. Tattooed individuals display literary quotes and illustrations, and recount the personal significance of their selections.
  • Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed by Carl Zimmer – In this science review, Carl Zimmer writes beautifully about science, while presenting many photographs of tattoos worn by scientists. His introduction gives the interesting backstory on how he became a “curator of tattoos, a scholar of science ink,” as well as a science writer. Also, he comments insightfully here on the significance of the tattoos in this collection, noting that “scientists get tattoos in order to mark themselves with an aspect of the world that has marked them deeply within.”

Carl Zimmer does not have a tattoo himself, yet seeking to learn about the tattoos worn by others brought him “a river of pleasures.”  For me, learning about tattooing has made observing individual tattoos even more interesting.


Great read Laura! As a tattoo fanatic, I have been stuck in a rut on what I want next. Maybe some of these titles can help me out! :)