"Tattoos are frickin magic"
I first met Doctor Matt Lodder on Twitter a decade ago – a bespectacled, heavily art historian who was writing a PhD about the relationship between art and tattoos. I was fascinated. Since then, he’s become a lecturer in art history at the University of Essex, curated tattoo exhibitions – including Tattoo British Tattoo Art Revealed at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall – and now he’s written a book called Painted People. I had a chat with him to find out where his fascination with tattoos comes from, how he turned that into a career in academia and, of course, to delve inside the pages of his fascinating new book…
Photo of Matt in header by Amit Lennon
Do you remember when you first fell in love with tattoos?
There’s this story about my great grandma, and her brother coming home one day with a tattoo machine and asking if he can tattoo her. She asked if it would come off and he said yes. I think I was told these kinds of stories to put me off – in fact, it did the opposite. Back in the 80s, I remember WWF wrestlers with tattoos and bands like Guns N' Roses and Iron Maiden, tattoos that would peep into the public consciousness. Then I'd see people on the bus who had tattoos peeking out of their clothes. And I just thought, they’re magic, right? Tattoos are frickin magic. And I was just fascinated by them, still am. Even now, walking into a tattoo shop, I get a bit of anxiety, not anxiety, but I can sort of feel it, you know, my skin prick up.
And you ended up fusing academia with your love of tattoos?
I came of academic age at exactly the time when everyone was obsessed with bodies. And Judith Butler had published Gender Trouble in the early 90s. And everyone in the mid 90s, early 2000s was obsessed with the body so I was just sort of in the right place at the right time in a weird way, both academically and culturally.
Tell us about your book, Painted People: Humanity in 21 Tattoos…
It's outside of my usual kind of writing, I’m an academic and this is a popular book, not my usual niche. It’s got a bit of ancient Egypt, the Romans, the Tudors... It isn’t a tattoo history book, it's a history through tattooing. That unencumbered me from the politics of writing for the tattoo industry. Some of the stories people might know already, but there’s some that people maybe haven't heard before, and some stuff that’s completely original. Even where you might know the person, in the book I've put them into new contexts.
Did you have fun writing it?
I've got ADHD, I find starting to write really difficult. I'll procrastinate and find something else to do. When I'm actually sitting, writing, it happens easily. But I was writing through the pandemic, and that was hard. I was also in a new relationship, so I had to figure out how to navigate that – I can't stay up till three in the morning writing every day, like I would have done when I was living on my own.
I learned a lot through the process. I love that because I read more widely, I discovered lots of fun things – it was a good excuse to go down some weird rabbit holes. I never thought when writing a tattoo history book that I'd be researching the history of the beef trade in the Cold War, but this is where tattoo history leads you – it intersects with other bits of life. Every chapter as well as having a hero story, it also has a context. All of these tattoo stories in the book connect to things that I wouldn't be able to do in a different kind of tattoo history book.
Who was your favourite person to write about?
I love the Madeline Altman story. She was tattooed by Samuel O'Reilly and got fined for it. What people already knew about her was that for three or four days she’s in the press as this sassy kid from Brooklyn who runs away and they find her covered in tattoos and drinking rum on the Bowery. Digging into her life – what I could find out about her – I didn't entirely find everything that happened to her afterwards. I still haven’t even been able to find a photograph of her. But I loved delving into the New York papers for a couple of days. It turned into this really complicated story about how young women were treated at the turn of the century, and how tattooing was a part of a bigger set of moral panics. But I felt frustrated as in the chapter, she sort of disappears from history in the 1920s.
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Image courtesy: The Nickerson Argosy (Nickerson, Kansas), 3 October 1901
I also enjoyed the Joe Carstairs story, she’s been written about before, so I wasn't uncovering anything new about her life, but to put her into tattoo history was fun. Turns out, one of her stepfathers was this guy who implanted monkey testicles into people to make them more manly. And all this context about early gender theory in Germany in the 1920s, talking about social construction of gender, uncovering that if we can inject people with monkey balls, and they become more manly, then gender isn't biologically determined – and if it is, it's definitely biologically mutable. All this synergy from this very weird little bit of her life. It feels really current, too. She's a super interesting person anyway, because of where she fits into queer histories and how tattooing was part of her self fashioning. And, you know, whether or not it makes sense to call her trans – those debates raged. But I wanted to do something about trans people and gender. She was such a good example. Then this beautiful intersection with the history of gender affirming science and those mad social experiments, pre World War Two, so yeah, that was fun.
What’s next, work wise?
I am working on another book. It's going to be a history of Western tattooing, so like right back to 1800 – just before Captain Cook – all the way through to the present day. It will be short chapters, and lots and lots of pictures.
And any tattoo plans?
I got a couple of bits of flash recently, a scorpion and a little lighter under my boob. Both by Ingunn, at Lucky 7 in Oslo. And I was chatting to Aaron Hewitt at my book launch about doing some Japanese stuff, so that’s next I hope.
Painted People: Humanity in 21 Tattoos by Dr Matt Lodder is published by William Collins (HB, £20) and is available to buy now. He also co-hosts a podcast called Beneath the Skin, which chronicles the interconnected history of the world through the complicated history of tattooing