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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.


And indeed,

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