Dr Matt Lodder from the School of Philosophy and Art History is an art historian with a difference. Rembrandts and Picassos aren’t his thing. It’s the artwork we paint on our bodies that interests him.
Inspired by family folklore, he developed a passion for understanding what tattoos tell us about the world we live in from an early age.
His new book, Painted People: Humanity in 21 Tattoos offers an insight into the fascinating history of tattooing, which spans thousands of years. It also gave me the chance to find out more about his love affair with inking.
When and why did you first become interested in the history of tattooing?
"I’ve been fascinated in tattooing since I was a child. I tell the story of my great-grandmother’s tattoo in the book, which was told to me as a cautionary tale but which became a real inspiration to me. She had been tattooed by her younger bother some time in the early years of the 20th century – he told her it would wash off, which of course it didn’t!
"Growing up in the 1980s, I was also fascinated with the tattoos on rock stars and WWF wrestlers. Tattooing is basically magic to children – designs on the skin that won’t wash off – and I was hooked almost instantly. I became a historian in order to learn more about this practice which fascinated me so much – and I think the fact that I was a tattoo collector first and a historian second has been an important part of my professional work."
Why should people read Painted People?
"This is a book that is as much a history through tattoos as it is a history of tattoos. Through the stories of these tattoos from the past 5,500 years, the book offers insights into a surprising range of topics, from colonialism and criminality to the ancient Persian postal system, the Argentinian beef trade in the Cold War, contemporary copyright law and the care of children in the early 20th century, amongst other things.
"As an art historian, I think we can understand people and places from the images they make, and that is particularly true if we look at the intimate art people wear on their skins."
If you could only tell someone about one of the people featured in your book, whose story would you chose and why?
"I think my favourite of all the core stories in the book is that of Jane and Mary, two women who were arrested for robbery in Dickensian London, before being sent as convicts to Australia. Because both women had tattoos, the magistrate assumed they were part of a fearsome gang of pickpockets called the Forty Thieves, something like Fagin’s gang from Oliver Twist. It turns out, though, that the gang never existed, and that just because people have tattoos, it doesn’t mean they’re all criminals!
"Through Jane and Mary’s tale, I get to tell a broader story about the relationship between tattoos and crime, and between the attempt to understand why people are tattooed and the birth of the academic study of criminology.
"Ultimately, the link is one which comes out of racist pseudoscience and 19th century colonial attitudes – something which becomes clear when we look closely at why the myth of the Forty Thieves developed."
What can we learn from the stories in Painted People?
"I hope readers will learn that whilst tattooing is so often thought about as something separate from other forms of cultural production, actually the story of tattooing is the story of everything else.
"When we think about the images people tattoo on themselves, and the circumstances in which they have been tattooed, we get unique insights into people and (sub-)cultures which aren’t otherwise often well represented in places like museums and archives."
How many tattoos do you have, what is your favourite and why and do you have any you regret?
"Because I got interested in tattooing so young, I managed to avoid getting any really terrible tattoos early on – I already knew there was a world of amazing artists out there.
"I’m pretty covered – maybe about 70% of my body, or slightly less – and have been tattooed for several hundred hours in total by more than a dozen artists. As it would be impossible at this stage to count the number of individual tattoos I have, I’ve taken to saying I’ve got one tattoo, really – I just keep adding to it!"
Listen to Matt talking about his new book
Read what the Literary Review has to say about Painted People