Convicts and the Cultural Significance of Tattooing in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Alker, Zoe and Shoemaker, Robert (2022) Convicts and the Cultural Significance of Tattooing in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Journal of British Studies, 61 (4). pp. 835-862. ISSN 0021-9371

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This article is based on a unique dataset of 75,448 written descriptions of tattoos on British criminal convicts who were either transported or imprisoned during the period from 1791 to 1925. Combining both quantitative evidence (provided as visualizations) and qualitative evidence, it shows that, rather than expressing criminal identities as criminologists and sociologists argued, convicts’ tattoos expressed a broad range of subjects, affinities, and interests from wider popular and even mainstream culture. The diverse occupations held by convicts, the contexts in which tattoos were created, and incidental references to tattooing in other parts of society all point to a growing phenomenon that was embedded in Victorian culture rather than constituting an expression of deviance or resistance. Indeed, in the late nineteenth century, tattooing became fashionable within elite society. These findings not only shed light on the significance of tattooing as a form of cultural expression but also undermine the myth that nineteenth-century criminality was the product of, as contemporary commentators termed it, a distinct “criminal class.”

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Journal Article
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Journal of British Studies
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Research Output Funding/yes_externally_funded
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19 Jan 2023 14:40
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12 May 2024 01:25