In the 1890s, Aimée (Crocker) Gillig astonished New York society when she returned from one of her journeys with two elegant specimens of chromatic needlework on her person. On one of her legs had been delicately and colorfully etched a snake, a symbol of health. On her back a butterfly, a symbol of the soul, poised as if for flight, had been stenciled by the deft puncture of the tattooer. News that the Aimée Crocker had become a “tattooed woman” electrified what was already becoming her considerable “public.” Aimée remarked, “The free life of wandering had gotten into my blood and the result was that my assimilation into Western living was a fairly complicated process… They made me out to be a rather scandalous sort of person, but I think the fun was worth it and that the joke was on them.”
Aimée Crocker devotes a few pages of her memoirs to legendary Japanese tattoo artist Hori Chiyo who most likely gave her at least one tattoo as he did with many an adventurous Western aristocrat. Chiyo was known for his use of bright colors, complex patterns, expressive designs and his innovative anatomically designed Kanto style, whereby a design was so arranged that it represented one thing when the muscles and skin were relaxed, and a totally different idea when they were flexed and tightened. Aimée claimed that Chiyo was an artist of the first order and, “a rather remarkable fellow in every way. To look at him, you would believe that he had stepped out of a gaudy melodrama during the intermission and had just neglected to remove his make-up and change his costume.” Besides tattooing the lovely American heiress, Hori Chiyo etched dragon designs on the arms of the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York (later King George V), the Duchess of Edinburgh, Queen Olga of Greece and Czar Nicholas II of Russia.
The list of royals who had their bodies illustrated in the 1880s and 1890s is extensive and included such names as Prince Henry of Prussia; Archduke Stephen of Austria; Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este; Prince and Princess Waldemar of Denmark; the Duke of Genoa; the Duke of York; the Dukes of Marlborough, Manchester and Newcastle; the Marquis of Salisbury; the Grand Dukes Alexis, Constantine and Michael of Russia; Prince Henry of Prussia, brother of Kaiser Wilhelm II; King Oscar of Sweden; the Duke of Genoa, brother of Queen Marguerite of Italy; Prince George of Greece; and the Grand Duke of Saxe-Cobury and Gotha. Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, had a tattoo of a snake around her wrist, which she covered with a diamond bracelet at formal occasions. The noblemen and noblewomen’s tattoos were often very Asian, very elaborate designs. The tattoo became a commodified product of colonialism.
Tattoo designs by Hori Chiyo
Tattoos appeared frequently on the bodies of “uncivilized” savages that American and British imperialists and swashbucklers encountered during their explorations. Tattooing was an art unknown in the western world prior to Captain Cook’s first voyage through Polynesia in 1768. The word tattoo is one of only a few words used internationally that have a Polynesian origin coming from the word tatau used in Tahiti, Tonga, and Samoa. In Hawai‘i the word became kakau. Seamen began exporting the practice becoming walking art galleries with great flags on their chests, scandalous mermaids on their biceps and anchors on their shoulders. Tattoos became a sign that the wearer had made long voyages to exotic shores of palm-fringed islands. Soon other rugged and adventurous men adopted the fad — soldiers, cowboys, miners, loggers, hoboes, and of course sideshow circus freaks.
Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso’s famous 1876 study, L’Uomo Delinquente, is credited with being the founding scholarship for the science of criminology. His study attested that criminality (which he believed was inherited) could be identified by the presence of a tattoo. Lombroso proved to his own satisfaction that tattooing was a characteristic mark among instinctive and habitual criminals especially among those guilty of assault and murder. “While murderers and those of brutish inclination indulge in it,” he said, “forgers and swindlers, whose intelligence is on a higher plane, do not practice it.” In The Female Offender, Lombroso claimed that tattooing occurred at a higher number among prostitutes than other female criminals.
While there were reports of fashionable society women being tattooed, they certainly kept them well covered up while in public. Not so Aimée Crocker. She was even photographed with her tattoos proudly on display. Aimée’s tattoos were an assault against the suffocating gender roles of Victorian America. They transcended class boundaries. They convoluted racial and gender identities. They transformed her into an alluring spectacle.