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Tattooing and Moby-Dick

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Kayla Young

on 8 December 2016

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Transcript of Tattooing and Moby-Dick

Tattooing and Moby-Dick
Chapter 3, page 37- The first time the audience encounters tattooing in Moby Dick is when Queequeg is undressing in front of Ishmael. Ishmael does not really know what his tattoos are at first. He calls them "large, blackish looking squares". Ishmael seems to associate tattoos with cannibalism and savagery. He said, "they were stains of some sort or other. At first I knew not what to make of this; but soon an inkling of the truth occurred to me. I remembered a story of a white man--a whaleman too--who, falling among the cannibals, had been tattooed by them" (page 37).
History of the American Freak Show
Taken and Tattooed
James F. O'Connel worked with P. T. Barnum in his freak show at the American Museum in 1841. He captured the audience's attention by painting them tales of being captured and forcibly tattooed by south sea virgins and then marrying the princess. This was very similar to the story of the deserter Jean Baptiste Cabri. He lived with natives for several years and was extensively tattooed.
John Rutherford was also taken and tattooed by a New Zealand tribe, the Maoris. (Nickell)
Phineas .T. Barnum made millions of dollars off of American freak shows in the 19th century. He took people that society deemed grotesque and deformed and turned them into lucrative entertaining attractions.
"The “freak show,” or “sideshow,” rose to prominence in 16th century England. For centuries, cultures around the world had interpreted severe physical deformities as bad omens or evidence that evil spirits were present; by the late 1500s, these stigmas had translated into public curiosity."
Barnum also worked with one of Americas first tattooed side acts: Captain Costentenus: “The Tattooed Man”. Costentenus claimed to be a prince raised in a harem and was covered in 338 tattoos that were " incredibly ornate, and depicted Burmese-specific species, and symbols from Eastern Mythology: snakes, elephants, storks, gazelles, dragons, plants, and flowers of all sorts."
He began working with Barnum around 1870 and became the highest grossing attraction of the American Museum. Adding inflation into it, with today's economy, he would have been making roughly $37,000 per week. In 1878 the New York Times even wrote an article on him.
As time passed, the freak show became a dying form of entertainment. With the rise of disability rights and other forms of entertainment, freak shows were very much a thing of the past by the 1950s, or at least in the traditional sense. Freak shows still exist, but in a very different format.
Much like Barnum's “Fat Boy”, TLC’s “My 600 Pound Life” sensationalizes morbid obesity. The tv show “Little People, Big World” pokes fun at the struggle of dwarfism just like Barnum did with Tom Thumb. (Crockett)
In a way, Queequeg is much like Captain Costentenus. They are both foreigners making a living in America doing something that is definitely considered low brow at best.
Tattooed Train Wreck
Chapter 18, page 96
Once again Ishmael is attempting to make sense of Queequeg's tattoos and why he has them. Queequeg uses at least one of his tattoos as his signature upon his shipping papers since he does not write. This is an example of how tattoos personalize people. "But at this question, Queequeg, who had twice or thrice before taken part in similar ceremonies, looked no ways abashed; but taking the offered pen, copied upon the paper, in the proper place, an exact counterpart of a queer round figure which was tattooed upon his arm
Chapter 110, page 421
"With a wild whimsiness, [Queequeg] now used his coffin for a sea-chest; and emptying into it his canvas bag of clothes, set them in order there. Many spare hours e spent, in carving the lid with all manner of grotesque figures and drawings; and it seemed that hereby he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body. And this tattooing, had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth"
In the later part of the 1800s, the stigma against tattoos was very harsh. It was associated with criminality, the underground, and general seediness, mostly connected to sailors, prostitution, and criminals.
This also applies to tattoo exhibits at freak shows. The stigma was there, but the public was still paying to see them, so there was a sick fascination attached to them. They thought they were dirty or weird, but just like with a train-wreck, they couldn't look away. (Sokol)
"In the 1890s, American socialite Ward McAllister said about tattoos: "It is certainly the most vulgar and barbarous habit the eccentric mind of fashion ever invented. It may do for an illiterate seaman, but hardly for an aristocrat."" (Tattoo History)
One of the first professional American tattoo artists was C.H. Fellowes who was believed to have followed the fleets and practiced his art on board ship and in various ports. The earliest records of American tattoo artists are from ship's logs, letters and diaries written in the early 19th century (Tattoo History).
Martin Hildebrandt, tattooing legend
Right around the time Moby-Dick was published, Hildebrandt was already setting up shop as a tattoo artist in New York City. His is actually thought to be the first tattoo parlor in NYC. Hildebrandt got his start as a sailor aboard a ship in the 1840s. The other sailors would want to tattoo themselves for luck and also with reminders of home. (Needles and Sins)
Then and Now
Today, there is still a stigma against tattoos, but they are becoming much more acceptable to society. 29% of Americans have a tattoo, and 69% of the 29% have two or more (Health and Life). People still have a fascination with all things tattoo, and we still have tattoo side show acts, they just look a little different. There are many reality shows about tattoos and tattooing: America’s Worst Tattoos, Bad Ink, Best Ink, Black Ink Crew, Black Ink Crew: Chicago, Bondi Ink, Epic Ink, Helsink, Inked, Ink Master, LA Ink, London Ink, Madrid Ink, Miami Ink, NY Ink, Rio Ink, Tattoos After Dark, Tattoo Fixers, Tattoo Highway, Tattoo Nightmares, Tattoo Nightmares: Miami, Tattoo Rescue, Tattoo School, Tattoo Titans, Tattoo You (List of Tattoo T.V. Shows).
Kat Von D had a reality t.v. show based in L.A. called L.A. Ink.

The topic of this archive is Tattooing in the 19th century, but it mostly revolves around tattoo exhibits at 19th century American Freak Shows. It shows three excerpts of the book related to tattooing, the history of the American Freak Show, the attitude of Americans towards tattoos then and now, accounts of men who were tattooed against their will, and there are also a couple examples of famous 19th century tattoo artists.
This archive provides evidence that had Queequeg not been able to find work as a whaler, he probably would have been scouted for an exhibition at a freak show because of his tattoos, his race, and the assumption that he is a cannibal by all who meet him. Queequeg is first introduced to the audience as being more or less a tattooed savage. If the audience can go off of Ishmael’s first impression of him, he is also slightly intimidating. This makes him very similar to some of the acts of the American freak shows, such as Captain Costentenus. It may have been difficult for Queequeg to find work outside of whaling or entertaining because of his tattoos and the stigma against them at the time.
The significance of this project builds upon and in some cases debunks the stereotypes attached to Queequeg and his tattoos. It seemed that it was because of his tattoos that Ishmael first thought of him as a cannibal, but it was not just “cannibals” who had tattoos in this time period. Though they were very much frowned upon, there were still people living outside of the culturally acceptable channels who were covered in tattoos. This archive gives further evidence to why people would have thought of Queequeg like this at the time.

Captain Costentenus. 1870. The Human Marvels. Human Marvels. Web. 4 Oct. 2016.
Chick Bowen. Moby Dick First Edition Title Page. 2007. Yale University, New Haven, CT. Yale University. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
Crockett, Zachary. "The Rise and Fall of Circus Freakshows." Priceonomics. Priceonomics, 30 Apr. 2014. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.
Cruickshank, Matthew. Queequeg. 2010. Blogspot, Blogspot.com. Blogspot. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
Delano, Jack. Freak Show. 1941. Rutland, Vermont. Wikipedia. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
Jean Baptiste Cabri. 1813. The Tattooed Bettie, Berkely.
Kat Von D. N.d. Hot Dog. Web. 6 Oct. 2016.
Kuhn. Train Wreck. 1895. "Old Accidents", Paris, France. The Green Box. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
"List of Tattoo TV Shows." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Mar. 2016. Web. 06 Oct. 2016.
Nemec, Dino. Moby Dick Tattoo. 2015. Tattoo Snob, Columbus, OH. Tumblr. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
Nickell, Joe. Secrets of the Side Shows. Lexington, Ky: U of Kentucky, 2005. Print.
Sokol, Zach. "The History of Tattooed Ladies from Freakshows to Reality TV | VICE | United States." VICE. Vice Media, 13 May 2015. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.
"Tattoo History - United States Tattoos - History of Tattoos and Tattooing Worldwide." Tattoo History - United States Tattoos. Vanishing Tattoo, 2013. Web. 04 Oct. 2016.

Works Cited
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