What is the History of Forced Tattooing?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2019
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The history of forced tattooing is ancient, and it may be almost as old as the history of tattooing itself. Fortunately, forced tattooing has always been and continues to be very rare, except in certain subcultures. For people who have suffered forced tattooing, the experience can be extremely traumatic, but it can also be a starting point for discussions of atrocities and the underworld, and some victims of forced tattoos have spoken out about their experiences and welcome questions and discussion.

The oldest example of forced tattooing is debatable, but it is probably the use of tattooing in tribal initiation ceremonies. Many tribes around the world have a history of tattooing as part of their cultural and religious beliefs, and such tattooing often takes place during initiation into adulthood. In these situations, the initiate cannot actively choose to get tattoos, and he or she may be pressured into it out of fear of rejection or mockery. However, this is not the case with most native tribal tattoos; many people wear their tattoos with pride, and they enjoy being part of the living history of their people.


Another of the most ancient uses of forced tattooing is in the identification of criminals. The Romans, for example, marked repeat offenders with tattoos to make them easy to identify, and this practice was also adopted in some other regions of Europe. In Japan, criminals were tattooed on their foreheads in the 17th century, ensuring that they could never conceal the marks. Most forced tattooing of criminals consisted of a distinctive mark which identified someone as a criminal, but didn't necessarily indicate the crime.

Because of the link between tattoos and criminality in some cultures, criminals in various regions of the world practice forced tattooing on each other to mark themselves. In both Russia and Japan, for example, members of gangs may be tattooed after significant life events, and they may not be offered the freedom of choice. Forced tattooing is also sometimes used in gang initiations, especially in North America, with members of the gang marking initiates very distinctively, ensuring that they will find it difficult to leave the gang life.

European explorers in the South Pacific sometimes returned with stories about being kidnapped and tattooed by the Polynesians, although research suggests that sailors simply told these stories to attract attention, and to explain the body art they returned with. Such stories ensured that sailors would be welcomed into high-class salons and events, with sailors literally paying for their entrance with their stories and by allowing curious people to inspect their tattoos.

One of the most infamous examples in the history of forced tattooing is from the Holocaust, when people were tattooed upon entering concentration camps, work camps, and death camps. These tattoos consisted of identification numbers which were used to track people. Especially for members of the Jewish faith, these tattoos were extremely traumatic, because Jewish law forbids tattoos; fortunately, rabbinical judgments have determined that forced tattoos or tattoos which are needed for medical reasons do not violate Jewish law. After the Holocaust, some survivors attempted to conceal or remove their tattoos, while others have chosen to leave their tattoos visible to remind people of the events of the Holocaust.

Some members of the tattoo community also refer to a concept which they call “rape by tattoo,” a situation in which a tattoo is used like a weapon. This can take the form of a forced tattoo, but it may also involve tattooing someone's name or artwork without consent. While it may seem a bit odd to think of being traumatized by having your name tattooed onto someone else, this can be a very emotionally charged act which can make the victim feel as though he or she has lost a part of the soul.


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Post 2

I think if somebody tattooed my name on their butt, I'd have to die laughing.

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