Marked For Life

May 1, 2020

I once thought it a fine act of marksmanship to fire a round down an empty bullet casing at close range. Don’t judge. I was drunk. I was rewarded with a spray of lead and powder to the face that was most embarrassing. I was able to dig the big chunk of lead out of my nose with a knife, and the shooting glasses saved my eyes. But I still have “gunpowder spots”.

The name “gunpowder spots” is derived from the sailors’ practice of making shipboard tattoos with gunpowder, instead of ink or carbon black. Sailors probably thought of gunpowder because the burning gunpowder coming out of their cannons gave them “gunpowder tattoos”, kinda like freckles.

 

Gunpowder tattoos were not just for the cannon crew. Sharpshooters since the days of flintlocks often had the mark of their guns on the dominant side of their face. Even modern guns offer their blessings if not treated correctly.

 

Gunpowder tattoos are also used in forensics to determine direction, proximity, and intensity. Old Westerns are filled with heroes and villains so marked in famous gun fights. One that springs to mind is Tom Chaney in “True Grit”. The mark on his face made him instantly recognizable, causing him to hide in the wilderness. Genesis 4:11-16.

 

Now we’re starting to sound all Biblical and shit! And if that wasn’t enough for you, Leviticus 19:28 KJV ”Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.”

 

It is understandable then that tattoos used to be the mark of a select few; sailors, prisoners, motorcycle clubs; with little concern for “societal norms”. You wouldn’t have given it a second thought to see one of these ne’er-do-wells flaunting their ink. And you wouldn’t have given it a second thought to not be thought one of them.

But two years ago Pope Francis declared, not only are they not a sin but, they can be a mark of beauty. To the young Ukrainian priest at the Legionaries of Christ’s Maria Mater Ecclesia College in Rome, the Pope continued, it is a sign of belonging. No wonder around 20% of Americans have at least one tattoo. This once frowned upon practice has become commonplace. (Take that, rebellious youth!)

 

Still, this is not something to be entered into lightly. In the 1680’s pirate surgeon Lionel Wafer wrote that one of his shipmates requested removal of his “gunpowder spots” (the period idiom for tattoos). In an age before Isaac Newton’s treatise on visible light, before sterilization practices in medicine, and way the hell before the invention of lasers, Wafer was your only option. It didn’t usually turn out pretty.

 

Nowadays we can tune a laser for the color of both the ink and the skin, making it a relatively painless procedure. So a Montana plainsman’s misspelling “Fillatlander”, or a sorority girl’s Chinese symbol for “soup”, may not seem as dire a decision. Luckily for you we have the Internet, which is almost as permanent.

 

With technology and acceptance comes thoughtful scholarship. In archeology and anthropology we find evidence of a time when tattoos were more integral with our cultures.

We have already seen passages in the Bible at the edge of prehistory. Aboriginal songlines tell the story of their people from creation to the present. Tattoos and petroglyphs have been used to fill in the details of these stories.


Ancient Egyptians from as far back as 1300 BC have been found with medical tattoos. Even pets nowadays are tattooed to show they have been neutered or spayed, though I don’t think that was the Egyptian intent.

 

South Pacific Islanders have long tattooed themselves for everything from spiritual protection to communal status. Some would argue that it is for such purposes that many practice the art today.

 

For many of these cultures, the entire body was the canvas. What would be the purpose of protecting yourself from harm only to expose your Achilles heel? But most of us won’t commit that kind of real estate. We prefer brevity.

 

We condense our story. Make ours a novella instead of an epic. In doing this, though, we have created an art form that, like the sailors and prisoners, leaves behind the larger saga of anonymity and weaves a far more personal tale. We create our own myths and symbology.

 

 

 

 


When the call went out for this edition of CC, some interesting images came back: a newborn’s footprint and birth date; Neptune, in commemoration of a sailor’s Equator crossing; and, twelve sets of paw prints in memory of twelve lost companions. In all the stories sent to us, one thing became really clear, somebody needs to work on their photography skills.

 

What also stood out was that these tattoos overwhelmingly were dedications to specific events or loved ones. Our belonging then becomes tied more closely to the symbols we use. It is not merely the sailor’s Pig and Chicken to keep them from drowning, a Tibetan prayer inscribed by a monk, the tears and spider webs of prison, or the hennaed hands of a bride-to-be.

There are a lot of ways to make your mark in the world. Most of us are satisfied with birthmarks and scars. Some have a larger story to tell.
 

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