Nineteenth-Century Criminal Tattoos Project

Thanks to funding from BA/Jisc Digital Research in the Humanities, the Digital Panopticon has a new baby project!

Tattooing has a long history, but the practice increased significantly in Britain and Australia in the nineteenth century, when a growing number of criminal convicts acquired tattoos. Their many meanings include expressions of love, hope, pain, defiance, fraternity, and religious commitment, and aspirations to be fashionable. As a largely voluntary practice, tattooing provides valuable evidence of non-elite voices which are otherwise difficult to locate in the historical record.

While tattooing has been the subject of a few studies, particularly of convicts transported to Tasmania (1802-53) and imprisoned in Ireland (1895-99), most research to date has been based on limited data and there is much that we still do not understand about the practice (Breathnach and Farrell 2015; Caplan 2000; Bradley and Maxwell-Stewart 1998; Maxwell-Stewart 1997). While tattoos can be interpreted as expressions of convicts’ individuality and aspirations, official practices of recording tattoos when documenting their physical characteristics can be seen as a form of state control. It is unclear why convicts engaged in a practice which facilitated such control, and whether the increasing use of tattooing signalled the growth of a defiant criminal subculture, or of more inclusive cultural aspirations.

The Digital Panopticon contains the most extensive information about tattooing in 19th-century Britain and Australia digitally available – there are at least 60,000 convicts who have described tattooes in the database – but the information is not currently systematically accessible. Evidence of tattoos is contained within at least six of the site’s datasets, in composite fields with diverse labels such as ‘distinguishing marks’ and ‘description’, and this evidence is intermixed with other physical details, such as eye colour, scars, bodily shape and physical infirmities. For example, the ‘body marks’ of James Rees, transported to Tasmania in 1826, are listed as:

‘Crucifix above elbow Joint rt arm deep dimple on chin Scar near outer corner rt eye Moon & 7 stars JW mermaid anchor JC MD JD TD & Cannon (Prop) inside rt arm’.

The language describing these tattoos is highly varied, using terse and incomplete phrases, and it can be difficult to separate out deliberate tattoos from other physical marks.

In addition to the challenge of extracting relevant information concerning tattoos from the highly varied physical description fields in the Digital Panopticon, a second technical challenge exists in coping with the complexity of the multiple variables available, and in summarising such voluminous and diverse data.

Via the ‘life archives’, information about tattoos can be linked to a large amount of other evidence about the convict, including their gender, age, occupation, religion, place of origin, type of crime committed, previous convictions, and punishment. The Digital Panopticon project currently uses visualisations to summarise this data and detect patterns, notably Sankey diagrams, pie charts, and specially developed ‘life charts’, but these formats are inadequate to the task of displaying complex multivariate data about convicts and their tattoos. New visualisation methods need to be developed.

Research Questions

There are two sets of research questions. The first set concerns the historical significance of the practice of tattooing:

  • Why, over the course of the nineteenth century, did convicts increasingly use their bodies as sites for recording their life events and expressing their identity and sentiments, despite the fact the state collected evidence of their tattoos for surveillance purposes?
    What is the relationship between the marks convicts chose to have imprinted on their bodies and those which were imposed by the state, by flogging and the branding of military deserters?
  • Which convicts, and from which social contexts, were most likely to have tattoos? How does tattooing vary by gender, age, occupation, religion and place of origin? How did these patterns change over the course of the nineteenth century?
  • Are there any significant differences between the tattoos of convicts who were transported to Australia and those who were imprisoned in Britain? Were recidivists more likely to have tattoos, and how did convicts chart their penal experiences?
  • What do the answers to these questions, when combined with evidence of the form and content of tattoos, and their locations on the convict body, reveal about convict sentiments and attitudes?
  • How does the history of convict tattoos fit in with the wider history of tattooing in Britain, Australia, and the wider world?
  • What light does the practice of tattooing shed on changing attitudes towards the body in the nineteenth century?

The second set of questions concerns how digital humanities methodologies can help us answer these research questions:

  • How can evidence of tattooing, described using a wide variety of terminology and linguistic patterns, be extracted at scale from the complex language of physical descriptions found in the Digital Panopticon records?
  • How can visualisations be utilised to summarise and analyse this evidence, particularly when it is combined with evidence about the convict’s personal background and characteristics, in order to identify the specific contexts in which tattooing, and particular types of tattoos, were used?
  • In particular, can new visualisation techniques be developed to uncover significant patterns in this and potentially other collections of complex, multivariate humanities data?

The project will run until the end of October 2019. There will be updates at the project’s data blog and on Twitter over the coming months. The main project event will be a hackathon in Sheffield in April 2019, which will enable interested researchers to experiment with the new tattoos corpus and give feedback on project progress. The corpus will also be made available as an open dataset.

Image credit: ‘Tattooed arms’, Wellcome Collection. CC BY