In the late 1920s, an English sideshow performer named Horace Ridler contacted legendary tattoo artist George Burchett about being “tattooed all over”. Horace would come to be known as The Great Omi, and would go on to tattoo a large part of his body in animal-like stripes, stretch his earlobes, and get a veterinarian to pierce his septum at a painfully large gauge. Being heavily tattooed and having a couple of piercings isn’t all that odd today, but back then, it was enough for him to make a career for himself as a freak and sideshow attraction. What is most notable now, however, is that Horace took a practice that has been fairly common in Japan, parts of Africa, Papua New Guinea, and many other places, for hundreds, even thousands, of years, and brought it to the western world. That’s not to say Horace was the first European to be heavily tattooed, but his travelling show made him one of the most-seen.
Full body tattoos, of course, did not originate as a freakshow novelty. Japan has a ten thousand year old history of full, or partial, body suits – most of which were, and still are, done with a single needle. Depending on the era, these large and colourful pieces were the symbol of the wealthy upper-class, the criminal lower-class, artists, gang members, or cultural heroes such as warriors and firemen. Interestingly, Japan has always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with tattoos – even completely outlawing them at one point – and so, despite their long, rich history of body suits, artists are very careful to design these tattoos so that a standard dress shirt will still entirely hide them.
In parts of Africa, a method that combines scarification and tattooing has long been used to cover the body in intricate and deeply symbolic patterns. Small cuts are made to the skin with thorns or razors, and charcoal or coloured ash is rubbed into them. This process often begins at puberty, and continues throughout one’s life, telling a story of that person’s experiences, rank, spiritual journey, and social status. For both women and male warriors, special designs are also applied for protection of one’s own body, and offspring.
Papua New Guinea also boasts a long, fascinating history with full body tattoos. Unlike many other cultures, tattoos in Papua New Guinea were largely the domain of women – girls began getting tattooed at just five, and most artists were also female. The meaning behind the tattoos varied – some were ritualistic, others erotic, and still others were fertility or religious symbols. Styles and motifs were often passed from generation to generation, so the body suits also indicated one’s family ties and status. So important, and such a major part of their culture, were these tattoos that women who did not have them, or enough of them, were considered unsuitable for marriage. Some tribes believed that tattooing has existed as long as heaven and earth, and that the first peoples emerged from the soil, already tattooed.
In Europe and North America, full body tattoos are still a very new and uncommon thing, though our reasons for getting them don’t differ all that much. In order for someone to commit to such a major piece of work, it invariably has to mean a lot to them, and therefore, is likely to have something to do with their family connections, chosen sub-cultures, or life’s journey. One has to wonder if freakshow performers like Horace had any idea the huge cultural gaps they would begin bridging when they were staring down a veterinarian’s needle.