An (Un)Reliable History of Tattoos (Hardcover)


An (Un)Reliable History of Tattoos (Hardcover)

The tattoo is an art form, a practice . . . for some, a ritual.

Wow!  OK!  This turned out to be a completely different type of book than I thought.  I sometimes just skim book titles and read them just because they look interesting, but I totally didn’t even read the book jacket on this little nugget – and I’m glad I didn’t.  First, this is a HILARIOUS book that you should read to yourself before you read to any kid and definitely not to any small child – in fact, I’m going to insist you don’t.  Why?  The world ‘re-imagined‘ history of tattoos through the ages has some very extravagant caricatures, is very tongue-in-cheek, and is often profane.  Yipes!  This isn’t a heart on your arm with your mother’s name sort of book.  It’s the read-under-your-blanket book I might have scrounged up when I was a pre-teen or early teenager.  I like to research things and almost every page had me scratching my head wondering if the information was based on a kernel of truth about tattoos or entirely made up – so I did a lot of Googling – and I loved that.

Even if looking up information is not your thing, this (UN)reliable tale of tattoos through time is actually somewhat informative, colorful, and fascinating.  Tats actually date back as far as the Neolithic era when our ancestors marked their bodies with symbolic lines derived from a carbon paste.  True? Hmmmmm…. How about Japanese students tattooing sushi to practice this art form before trying the skill on clients by sticking colored ink into the skin by sharpened chopsticks?  Stuff of legend?  Some of the info in this book is outright crazy, but some history may be slightly based on some small ‘inkling’ of truth!  Ha!  It’s up to the reader to decide and research.  One ‘fact’ I really enjoyed researching was what American presidents actually had confirmed tattoos.  While I was right to be skeptical of George Washington (as the book implies), I did learn that three U.S. Presidents, did, in fact, have tattoos!  Want to guess which?  Unlike the book, I won’t leave you in suspense, so here’s the order: James K. Polk, Andrew Jackson, and Theodore Roosevelt.  Polk, you know, the ‘mediocre President’ who annexed Texas, actually had a Chinese character tattoo that meant ‘eager’.  What?  Yup!  So while the facts are up in the air, this is a fun and funny book that may be best to read in bed at night after the kids are asleep or else you might have some ‘splaining’ to do.  I laughed out loud on almost every page, which made me feel very silly and very ‘indie’ comic-book nerd-ish again, which isn’t a bad thing at my age.  In fact, I did feel a little bit like a pre-teenage girl for a brief moment in time and it’s a rare occurrence a book does that to me.  So, well done, Paul Thomas, you certainly wrote an interesting and, as promised, unreliable history of tattoos that I enjoyed.

And for those history buffs who are actually interested in some real historical tattooed figures, here’s my favorite tattoo top 10 list all thanks to that lovely magazine/website mental floss (Cite HERE):


Tattoos would never have taken off if Edison’s patented “electric pen” hadn’t paved the way for the first tattoo gun. So it’s only fitting that he had a quincunx, a geometric pattern of five dots, inked on his forearm.


The 1984 author also saw spots. His were bright blue and tattooed on his knuckles. The dots were supposedly a bit of youthful rebellion from Orwell’s days as a policeman in colonial Burma.


America’s 11th president annexed Texas, but he had another legacy that was just as lasting: starting the trend of Chinese-character tattoos. Polk’s ink translated as “eager,” or so he was told.


Polk wasn’t the only tattooed commander in chief. Teddy Roosevelt had his family crest emblazoned across his chest.


The notoriously cranky Jackson was never one to bury the hatchet, but he did have a tomahawk inked on his inner thigh.


The sharp-tongued writer sported a small blue star near her elbow as a memento of a drunken night in the 1930s.


As of 2012, the U.K. holds the title of the world’s most tattooed nation, and the trend goes back ages. Even Churchill sported some body art: an anchor on his forearm.


Longtime senator Barry “Mr. Conservative” Goldwater adorned his hand with a crescent moon and four dots, the trademark of the Smoki People, an Arizona organization dedicated to preserving Native American culture.


In 1891, Nicholas II of Russia visited Japan to improve Russo-Japanese relations. He survived an assassination attempt on his trip, but he also came home with a souvenir: a colorful dragon on his right arm.


Royal tattoos have been around longer than you’d think. After England’s Harold II emerged as the big loser at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, his allies identified his body using his ink, including his wife’s name, Edith, scrawled across his heart.

Who knew?!

About the Author/Illustrator:  Paul Thomas’s work has also appeared in the Sunday Times, the Times, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, Private Eye, and Shares magazine. He has illustrated three books by Hunter Davies for Random House.

An (Un)Reliable History of Tattoos (Hardcover)

List Price: $ 19.95

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