Tattoos: Between the Tribal and the Universal
functionality and minimalism: “The modern man who tattoos himself is a
criminal or a degenerate... There are prisons in which eighty per cent of the
prisoners are tattooed... Tattooed men who are not behind bars are either
latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If someone who is tattooed dies
in freedom, then he does so a few years before he would have committed
Between 1933 and 1935, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Walter
Bromberg, examined the phenomenon of tattoos in light of the Freudian
theory, and outlined a myriad of pathological motives as its determining
causes. He analyzed popular examples of tattoos and found in them
manifestation of sadomasochistic fantasies, guilt, homosexual drives, etc..
Other psychiatrists believed that tattoos may constitute an expression of
schizophrenic tendencies, anti-social behavior and lack of confidence,
aggression, and perversion.
New interpretations consider the act of tattooing as either a visual
expression of trauma and pain or a protective armor and act of healing
and empowerment, depending on the individual’s cognitive state.
symbols often represent repressed and unconscious contents. These
contents, which are difficult for the psyche to cope with, reflect themselves
back to us in the encounter with reality. Tattoos can constitute a daily
reminder, on the surface of the skin, of the life of the psyche, and often of
its dark and disturbing aspects.
In 1876, psychiatrist and criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, was the
first to document tattoos amongst prisoners in Italy. Lombroso believed
that tattoos offer an efficient way of diagnosing criminals.
in the dictionary he edited, tattoo symbols are aligned with criminal
At the same time, in France, officers were required to
document the tattoos on the bodies of the convicts, since they were
later used to verify their identity in the courtroom. French physician,
criminologist, and professor of forensic medicine, Alexandre Lacassagne
also wrote an extensive dictionary, which included around two thousand
models of prisoners tattoos. These pseudo-scientific observations have
lost their relevance long ago, yet they offer us a fascinating documentation