THE TATTOO IN MODERN ROMANIAN SOCIETY

Dr. Adrian Majuru[1]

General overview

Tattoos in Romanian society can be considered to have been a fashionable practice ever since the period of Neolithic cultures,[2] but in the Middle Ages they were a defining characteristic of the highest social class[3] (a cultural element borrowed from the East) or probably of a series of more extravagant characters like Petru Cercel[4] or Gratiani Gaspar.[5] The advent of modernity enabled tattoos to be in fashion within all social structures, particularly the urban ones.

Towards a history of symbols[6]

The wide array of symbols displayed by tattoos spreads from delinquents to high society. From the perspective of sociology and psychology – two landmarks with solid imaginary and mental contents – tattooed symbols also highlight some characteristics of the individual’s personality. Judging from the perspective of the history of modern urban life, the impact of fast growing modernisation – in which the individuals are inundated with all sorts of problems, many tattooed symbols represent either a form of protest against an unbearable world or a form of public exposure or group affiliation, of community or sexual minority.

As regards modern Romanian society, the first synthesis of the problematic of tattoos has been made not by a historian, but by the forensic doctor Nicolae Minovici.[7] In 1898, he published a study entitled Tatuajurile în România (Tattoos in Romania),[8] actually his graduation paper that Romanian medicine still deems as a work of reference and so should historiography.

After 1850, Bucharest society has witnessed the entire variety of social structures built by modern everyday life: a middle class comprised of freelancers, peasants with a substantial income, leaseholders and loan sharks, etc, a “high” society characterised by flexible boundaries, in spite of its resentments at the new rich, a marginal society made up of different ethnic, confessional and professional groups that was on the point of becoming urbanised. One of the common elements – only seldom brought out into the open and likely to be defined as a particularity of private personality – has been the tattoo and its wide range of symbols.

The tattoo as a social phenomenon

Analysed in the above-mentioned study with respect to the phenomenon of tattoos in late nineteenth-century Bucharest, the samples of the delinquents’ tattoos were taken from the body of the individuals who “were examined by our Anthropometric Department”.[9] The author divides the tattoos not according to their symbolism, but according to the type of social group represented by these symbols. Criminals (among them thieves and adventurers of all kinds) thus represented the most numerous group.

The delinquents’ tattoos provided important notions of “the moral ideas of the tattooed, their ordinary thinking, images that are dear to them, their private souvenirs and even their revengeful plans devised in a cynical manner”.[10]

Inscriptions such as “A martyr of freedom”, “Gendarmes must die”, “French officers must die”, “I swear to take revenge” and other signs like a gendarme’s head threatened by a clenched fist have been found on the body of criminals. Such is the case of France used by Doctor Nicolae Minovici for comparative purposes.[11]

Obscenity was another feature of the delinquents’ tattoos. “11 tattoos” had been found in France “on men’s penis, consisting of spur boots, the ace of hearts, the apron’s number, etc, 280 erotic or, better say, lubricious emblems represented by 176 female busts, 35 nudes, 4 of which representing the act of having sex”. Among our delinquents “we could only find three tattoos of this kind, of which one was discovered on the body of an individual whose obscenity portrayed by the nude of his mistress was in stark contrast with the dead body of his son; two more tattoos, whose obscenity prevents me from explaining their meaning, were found on the body of an individual”. The latter was the case of a man “by Transylvanian origin” who tattooed his body when he was in the army.[12]

Doctor Nicolae Minovici includes the tattoos of the pederasts, “this sort of people who, more than anybody else, seek to be liked by others”, in the category of obscenity. Once again, Minovici refers to a few French cases that might have been found in Romania as well: the tattoo of a naked woman – “who seemed to masturbate when the forearm was flexed” – was thus discovered on a man’s forearm joint. Various other portraits were also found: Joan of Arc, a hanged man, Bismarck’s portrait, a soldier, “one eye on each buttock, a snake making its own way to the anus. Another man’s tattoo revealed a Zouave soldier on each buttock, with a ribbon hanging in-between two crossed bayonets, which read: ‘On n’entre pas’”.[13]

Mad people were another category of individuals. We offer here a selection of the cases on which several remarks have been made: Radu Ionescu, nicknamed Dumitru Ignat Călăreţu, a chronic alcoholic, had a tattoo of his mistress, which dates from 1879. The tattoo was painted with the help of sanitary alcohol and gunpowder. Another man, Dumitru Mihai, a chronic alcoholic too, had a tattoo designed with the help of six needles and incense smoke; a certain Costache Ionescu, affected by general paralysis, had a tattoo “which consisted of many crosses made by a monk at Golgota Monastery, where he was imprisoned for horse theft”. His tattoo was made from “gunpowder, yeast brandy, and three needles”.[14]

A sexual attraction accessory

Prostitutes came up with completely new elements that were integrated in the symbolism of tattoos, even if “in terms of sex, the tattoo prevails among men”. Generally, prostitutes were tattooed “by their first lover when they were young” and, more often than not, their tattoos were “unpleasant and non-erasable souvenirs of their first mistake which, it is understood, must be an embarrassment to them while they are doing their job”. The story of a young woman, whose tattoo read “I love you, Leon”, unravels the fact that “many men who are initially very polite dampened their enthusiasm upon seeing this tattoo and ended up by doing nothing and paying nothing to her”. Doctor Minovici records another interesting fact: “generally, the elderly prostitutes’ tattoos are represented by a woman’s name while young prostitutes have a man’s name tattooed on their skin, as their sense is not yet perverted”. As for the large number of clandestine prostitutes, the custom of having many tattoos on the body was not very frequent. Most of them were tattooed either by an “artist” or by their friends, either in jail or by their lovers.

Only few prostitutes were tattooed in late nineteenth-century Bucharest. Thus, “I found no tattoo in 80 prostitutes examined at the Bucharest dispensary; a medical doctor who examined them reported that only 4 prostitutes of 698 registered in 1897 were tattooed. Our prostitutes’ tattoos consist to a great extent in moles marked on their cheeks, particularly Gypsy women who want to look more beautiful. The number of these moles scattered all over the face may vary. Thus, the famous recidivist prostitute A.M… had two moles on her cheek; another prostitute, currently a servant at Marcuţa hospice, has two moles on her cheek and one mole between her eyebrows”.[15]

Tattoos were also in fashion in the “Great World”. Thus, one of the first tattooists in London, who was “a well-educated man in his prime, with a conduct indicative of his irreproachable honesty” and “used elegant words”, claimed that “a large part of my customers are officers. It is now fashionable for these gentlemen who are in the army to have their arms tattooed with the number and colours of the regiment to which they belong”. Insofar as high-society ladies are concerned, “they used to have tattoos of garters and bracelets designed in a mosaic of colours”. The above-mentioned character tells us that he had drawn “a bracelet on the hand of a lady H from high-society. The bracelet was so shiny and so much thrown into relief that everybody took it for a sculpted bracelet”.

We should also mention General Bernadotte (a close friend of Napoleon Bonaparte), the founder of the present Swedish Royal House, who, being seriously ill, had to show his nudity to his personal doctor who saw that his arm was tattooed with a Phrygian cap on which one could read the inscription “Kings must die!”[16]

Voluptuousness is one of the many causes related to tattoos. The role played by some more or less obscene symbols alluding to a certain type of excitation, which is not necessarily connected with sexual intercourse (this was still atypical of modern Romanian society) was decisive. Doctor Nicolae Minovici quotes the remarks made by an Italian man tattooed, just like his six brothers, all over his body: “When the tattoo is very entertaining and spread all over the body, the others perceive it as a black decorated coat; the more tattoos we have got, the greater the degree of our self-esteem. The more tattooed an individual is, the more authority he exerts over his companions. On the contrary, he who is not well tattooed, has no influence, is not respected by the company he keeps”. This occurred around 1860-1870![17]

In Dizionario dell’ Erotismo, Ernest Borneman argues that “the practice of tattooing often has an erotic motivation, which makes it have recourse to sexual themes both in ethnological and evolved cultures. For instance, only the tattooed girls who belong to certain populations of Oceania can enter into a marriage contract. Tattoos which have an erotic or obscene theme were and still are very popular in the West”.[18]

Tattoos in the statistics of the year 1898

According to Doctor N. Minovici’s research, the late nineteenth-century examination of 116 tattooed persons was highly relevant to the historical, demographic, sociological, psychological, anthropological and ethnological study. According to their nationality, 52 Romanians (including two women), 15 Greeks, 14 Hungarians, 9 Germans, 6 Macedonians (including a child), 6 Bulgarians (including a woman), 6 Gypsies (including a woman), 2 Bohemians and one French man, all tattooed with different symbols, were registered in Bucharest. Most of them were delinquents (85), whereas 17 were free. According to their profession, they were workers (30 men), servants (17, of whom two were women), coachmen and ploughmen (10 persons for each trade), seven soldiers, six merchants, five mechanics, five shoemakers, four butchers, three tailors, two masons, one drawer and 11 unemployed (including two women and one child). The great majority was aged between 30 and 60 (85 persons), whereas 22 of them were below 30 years old. Four of them, however, were over 60 years old.

According to their educational background, 35 of them attended the primary school while two of them were high-school graduates. The rest of them were illiterate. The offences committed were the following: theft (35 persons), murder (6), battery (8 men and one woman), begging (11), assault (4), robbery (2), fraud (7 persons and one child), indecent behaviour (5), smuggling (5). The largest number of tattoos was designed “at liberty” but also in prison (24 cases), in the army (11 cases) or “in the navy” (6 cases).

The Greeks were the most skilful tattooists in the Bucharest of the 1900s (40 in number), whereas only ten Romanians practiced the art of tattooing. They were followed by six Hungarians, two Turks, two Macedonians, Germans, Bulgarians, Russians, Arnauts, Polish, Israelites (one for each nationality). 56 of the 66 persons above mentioned were foreigners! [19]

It seems that tattoos were a fashion that was not part of the Romanian people’s customs. Therefore, foreigners brought it into the country and started to represent one of the many types of acculturation that Romanian urban and suburban society took over from similar European models.[20] Though the 1990 phenomenon is essentially similar, the number of Romanians familiar with the art of tattooing is by far larger compared to the year 1898.

An interwar case-study

A professor of anatomy and an internationally recognised anthropologist, Dr. Francisc Josif Rainer was a close friend of Professor Nicolae Minovici.[21] The two doctors had a fruitful collaboration, which was generally visible in the case of rescue diggings or exhumations undertaken for forensic expertise. Nicolae Minovici collaborated with Dr. Rainer on the anthropological expertise of the skeletons and skulls that constituted their object of study.

Nonetheless, the novelty of the present article resides in a case – which Francisc Iosif Rainer studied in 1927 – of a Bucharest citizen who had tattoos marked on both shoulders and on his torso. His name was Alexandru Popescu, 27, who was a tailor by trade the moment Rainer carried out his research.

In what follows we provide you data gathered by Professor Rainer from the informant. We also attach four photos taken on this occasion:

“Alexandru Popescu, aged 27, was born in Bucureşti commune on January 29th, 1900. He is a tailor by trade. In 1921 he was enlisted in the Foreign Legion in France in order to fight against the Riffans. A Czech man, who had been imprisoned in Czechoslovakia for money counterfeiting, tattooed the front side of Popescu’s torso, his left and right arms as well as his left and right shoulders in the detention camp from Sidibelabes (Morocco).

He made use of the following procedure:

  1. Obtain soot by burning one litre of oil in a recipient. Mix the soot with 200-300 c.m.c. of fresh urine.
  2. Put oil on a stencil designed with a chemical (copying) pencil. Use water to moist the skin surface where you want to design the tattoo. Apply the drawing by tapping the skin with a brush. Then remove the stencil.
  3. Take a few very fine needles, thrust them into a stick and bind them together, with their pointed ends upwards.
  4. Moist the needles in the soot and sting the stencil lines. Perform the operation three times.

If the spot where the tattoo has been marked is surrounded by “pips” three days later, it means that the individual’s skin is “bad” and, therefore, the tattoo cannot be marked; if not, a thin layer of skin which covers the drawing comes off after three or four days, leaving the drawing untouched. One can make colour drawings. This is what a German guy used to do in the detention camp. February 1927)”.[22]

It is interesting that two of the tattoos that appear in the photos taken in 1927 are today part of the tattoo collection sheltered by “Dr. Mina Minovici” National Institute of Forensic Medicine: the portrait of a woman and the star-shaped tattoo; in the documentary photography, the star-shaped tattoo is marked on a man’s arm. Due to favourable circumstances, we can thus prove the tattoo’s date, owner, design procedures and the exact place where two of the tattoos belonging to the collection preserved by INML (National Institute of Forensic medicine) were designed. Not long ago, the star-shaped tattoo was restored for the first time, along with other three tattoos from “Dr. Mina Minovici” INML collection.

Bibliography

  • Caraman, Petru, Studii de Folclor, vol. II, Bucureşti: Ed.Minerva, 1988.
  • Ernest, Borneman, Dizionario dell’ Erotismo, Milano: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 1988.
  • Evseev, Ivan, Dictionar de simboluri si arhetipuri culturale, Ed. Amarcord, Timișoara, 2001.
  • Green, Terisa, The Tattoo Encyclopaedia – A Guide to Choosing your Tattoo, New York: A Fireside Book, Rockfeller Center, 2003.
  • Jeudy, Henri – Pierre, Corpul ca obiect de artă, Bucureşti: Ed. Eurosong&Book, 1998.
  • Majuru, Adrian (coord.), Bucurestiul subteran. Cerșetorie, delincventă, vagabondaj, colectia Odiseu, Piteşti: Ed. Paralela 45, 2005.
  • Minovici, Mina, Tratat complet de medicină legală, Bucureşti: Arhivele Grafice Socec&Co., Societatea Anonimă, 1930.
  • Minovici, Nicolae, Tatuajurile în România, Bucureşti: Arhivele Grafice Socec&Co., Societatea Anonimă, 1898.
  • Rainier, Chris, Ancient Marks: The Sacred Origins of Tattoos and Body Marking, California: Earth Aware Editions, 2006.
  • Salamandjee, Yasmine, Piercings et tatouages, Eyrolles Collection, Paris, 2003.
  • Materiale de istorie și muzeografie, vol. XV, București, 2001.
  • Tout savoair sur Le Tatouage, éditions Larivière, Paris, 2005.
  • Arhiva Rainer, “Francisc Iosif Rainer” Institute of Anthropology, The Romanian Academy,
  •  Gavrilescu, Monica, Tatuajul între artă si pseudo-artă, graduation paper (manuscript)

(This article is the result of research conducted within the project entitled “The Capitalization of Cultural identities in Global Processes” co-financed by the European Union and the Government of Romania from the European Social Fund via the Sectoral Operational programme for the Development of Human Resources 2007-2013, financing contract no. POSDRU/89/1.5/S/59758)

 NOTES:

[1] Adrian Majuru graduated from the Faculty of History (1997) and earned his PhD in human geography (2005). He is currently a postdoctoral student engaged in a project entitled  “The Capitalisation of Cultural Identities in Global Processes” unfolded by “Francisc Josif Rainer” Institute of Anthropology of the Romanian Academy. The topic of Majuru’s research project is “Interdisciplinarity as a Universal Integrating Principle in Francisc Iosif Rainer’s Work”.

[2] “(…) well-known to specialists in protohistory for its original painted ceramics, the archaeological site of Cucuteni, situated in Moldavia, Iaşi County, is known to have hosted a large number of figurines of naked women whose bodies are entirely covered by symmetrical geometrical ornaments usually designed in parallel coloured or engraved curved grooves”, Petru Caraman, “Tatuajul la români după creatiile folclorice”, Studii de folclor, vol. II, Bucureşti: Editura Minerva, 1988).

[3] Ibid, p. 201. The same ethnographer, Petru Caraman, opines that “the practice of tattooing ceased to exist within the large dialectal group of Daco-Romanians who had settled north of the Danube. As a local practice, it must have disappeared from the realm of ancient Dacia three or four centuries before”.

[4] Petru Cercel was the ruler of Wallachia between 1583 and 1585. He was nicknamed “Earring” because he used to wear an earring, which was completely uncommon in the cultural space of Wallachia. Petru Cercel had lived in Renaissance Italy. A few poems in Italian written in the style of the age have been preserved to this day. He was labelled as a more eccentric ruler compared to the cultural norms typical of this area.

[5] Born in the Dalmatian area, Gratiani Gaspar was the ruler of Moldavia between September 1619 and April 1620.

[6] The significance of the tattoo has evolved over time in different civilizations both in terms of beauty of design and originality and symbolism. For instance, the first remains of skeletons coloured in red were found in prehistoric times. Subsequently, in the Neolithic Age, tattooing is more frequently practiced. The numerous bones coloured in red and discovered in the graves from Liguria stand solid proof. Evidence of the practice of tattooing has also been found in Spain and Italy – close to Rome, where archaeologists discovered a skull coloured with cinnabar. The Bronze Age brought a substantial improvement in the evolution of tattoos, that is, face tattooing. In this sense, the tattoos designed on the face of the Tarn statues in France and of the idols in Portugal are famous.

Traces of tattoos on a Neolithic statue were discovered in Romania at Cucuteni, Moldavia. The statue reveals tattoos designed on the head, which is typical of ceramic objects hand-crafted during this period.

The reputed Professor Lacassagne considers the prehistoric tattoo to be represented by lines, points and animals, all of them standing for mythical emblems, totems or religious ideas. For the primitive man the tattoo is the mark of affiliation, a sign of recognition, an apotropaic amulet.

The evolution of tattoos is particularly associated with ancient civilizations. A large number of Greek and Latin writings make reference to it. Thus, Aetius speaks about the stinging technique applied to tattooing, whereas Julius Caesar refers to the Bretons’ tattoos designed by incision. Compared to the huge number of books about ancient tattoos, studies on the Middle Ages tattoos are scarce because of the ban imposed by both the Christian Church and the Muslim religion. It is only in the sixteenth century when texts about these tattoos come out. In the eighteenth century, we find a few allusions to tattoos in The Marriage of Figaro by Beaumarchais, more specifically in scene 16, Act III, in which Bertolo and Marcelini say that Figaro is their child, as he has got a spatula tattooed on his arm.

The history of tattoo research is indissolubly tied with the name of scholars like Lombroso in Italy, Lettchman in Germany and Delgh in Denmark. Today one may say that tattooing has been a familiar practice to all peoples of the world. There is, nevertheless, one single country, Russia, where tattooing is almost non-existent owing to the ancient Russians’ religious superstitions, according to which the practice of tattooing was tightly connected with evil spirits.

[7] A continuator of the criminal anthropology school and forensic medicine initiated by his brother Nicolae Minovici (1868-1941), a forensic doctor and professor at the University of Cluj and Bucharest, respectively, he is the author of many studies on begging and death by hanging, as well as on the histology and histochemistry of putrefaction. His major works are Tatuajurile în România [Tattoos in Romania] (1898), Manual tehnic de medicină legală [Forensic Medicine Handbook] (1904) and Autopsia medico-legală [Forensic Autopsy] (1926).

As a head of the Anthropometric Department of Bucharest, Dr. Nicolae Minovici points out the essential role that tattoos have played in ethnology, anthropology and particularly in forensic medicine. His findings enable him to observe that, according to their variety and number, tattoos are able to provide precious information about the social rank of an individual and, from time to time, about his moral principles. By quoting the well-known Professor Lacassagne, N. Minovici asserts that tattoos are genuine “talking scars” and that they act as the best symbol of identity in the field of forensic medicine.

[8] Doctor Nicolae S. Minovici, Tatuajurile în România, Stabilimentul Grafic J.V.Socecu, Bucuresci, 1898. At that time, Nicolae Minovici was the head of the Anthropometric Department and also an associate assistant in the Forensic Medicine Department of the Bucharest Faculty of Medicine.

[9] “Since I have been the head of the Anthropometric Department, we have concentrated on the detainees’ physical description, and the tattoos designed on their body” (Ibid., p. 4.).

[10] Ibid, p.106. “(…) Both our own and other authors’ statistics reveal that criminals, more than anybody else within the lowest orders of society, have a penchant for this practice” (ibid., pp.106-107).

[11] Ibid., p.107.

[12] Ibid., p.110.

[13] Ibid., p.111.

[14] Ibid., pp.120-121. “(…) concerning our research on 342 mentally impaired patients (191 males and 151 females) from Mărcuta hospice, we found only six tattoos which are not related to the patients’ malady” (ibid., p. 119).

[15] See Chapter XI, apud. ibid., on prostitution, pp.121-124.

[16] Ibid, pp.127-128.

[17] Ibid., p.132. “(..) Another man also said: ‘When we get a hooker, it is she who often gives us presents and money, not the other way round, especially because she likes seeing our tattooed bodies”.

[18] Ernest Borneman, Dizionario dell’ Erotismo, Milano: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 1988, PAGINA???

[19] Nicolae Minovici, op.cit., pp. 137-140

[20] Up until the 1989 Revolution, tattoos only acted as a means of identifying the affiliation with a group and/or as a mark of private symbolism: “Gigi”, “Lola”, a heart thrust by an arrow, an anchor, a flower. Only today have tattoos become a real fashion. They have been taken over as a mass phenomenon from the West, where the tattoo fashion is waning. See Green, Terisa, The Tattoo Encyclopaedia – A Guide to Choosing your Tattoo, New York: A Fireside Book, Rockefeller Center, 2003.

[21] Francisc Iosif Rainer (1875-1944) was an eminent professor of anatomy and a reputed anthropologist worldwide. On a world scale, he completed, together with the sociologist Dimitrie Gusti, the first field-work monographs on the population from Nereju, Fundu Moldovei and Drăgus. He publicised his opinions about the variety of human races. Via an interdisciplinary approach, Francisc Rainer developed a clear, synthetic and appealing discourse by having recourse to biological and anthropological demonstrations – according to the level of knowledge at the time, which generally corresponds to current research – in order to confirm the historical phenomenon. At that time, this method of synthetic argumentation had been called “Rainerism”. Rainer’s method consists in an interdisciplinary approach meant to construct a synthetic discourse which takes biology and anthropology as a starting point able to explain a historical phenomenon. Francisc Rainer was an avowed evolutionist. He believed that man and the environment form an osmotic relationship, whereas the races or anthropological types stand for an answer offered by the genetic make-up translated as a fenotypical expression of all the integrations in the environment over time. He only understood human beings from a bio-psycho-social perspective. Rainer believed that “any perception of life rooted in biology is subhuman, but any perception of life must not contradict biology”. This avant-garde perception is hardly understood today, though it is undoubtedly supported by research into molecular genetics, neuroendocrinology, paleoanthropology and today’s anthropology. Francisc Josif Rainer revolutionised anatomy, which he considered to be “the science of living forms”.

[22] Manuscript; two pages with handwritten notes; document dated and accompanied by four black-and-white photos, the Archive of “Francisc Josif Rainer” Institute of Anthropology.

x

Folosim cookies pentru a vă oferi o cât mai bună experiență online. Prin exprimarea acordului, acceptați folosirea cookie-urilor conform cu Politica utilizării cookie-urilor.

Accept Nu sunt de acord Centru de Confidențialitate a Datelor Setări confidențialitate Află mai multe despre Politica utilizării cookie-urilor