Written on the Body: Exploring Risk, Danger and the Memorialisation of Fishing Communities through Tattoos

Monday, 16 July 2018: 17:30
Oral Presentation
Elizabeth CARNEGIE, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom
Following on from exploratory fieldwork with former elderly seafaring men in Hull, this paper focuses on the role that tattoos played in developing and shaping individual and workplace community identity, within seafaring communities and their lasting role as memorials to loss and change. I argue here that the individual body also reflects the collective, ‘community body’, even the ‘global body’ within this selected profession, where the body is a ‘tool of the trade’. Although fishermen were considered ‘rough’ and tattoos on fishermen were associated with roughness, meaning they potentially carried a social stigma, associated with a ‘tainted’ profession all of the men interviewed for this study were tattooed despite knowing this to be the case. Seamen’s lives revolved round a cycle of risk and work based danger, punctuated by leavings and (hopefully) returnings. Tattoos were routinely used to identity the bodies of those lost at sea. (Hull has a book of tattoos in the City Archive that were used to identify drowned sailors). Sea-faring men might consciously get ‘marked’ to aid identification, but also some tattoos associated with fishermen were talismen, worn on the body to offer protection and often drawing on the twin pillars of religion and superstition, or family or the names of vessels. Tattoos were often garnered like souvenirs, a passport stamp on the body, when boats docked overseas. Poor hygiene and basic equipment could result in a more painful, even dangerous experience. This paper examines former fishermen/seafaring communities’ tattoo tales as symbols of a sunken and fast vanishing way of life. I additionally examine how such tattoos reflect individual and community loss within a time of rapid change.