top of page

Historian shares the secret romance of 18th century prison tattoo culture

victorian tattoos
The majority of documented 18th century tattoos are on prisoners, skewing people's perceptions

We've come a long way from assuming everyone with a tattoo is a criminal, but there is a reason why being inked has strong connotations with prison.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the British and American navies recorded tattoos on their enlisted men because it made them easier to identify if they deserted and went on the run. For similar reasons, prisons began to record tattoos and other identifying marks on inmates, including convicts shipped to Australia.

So while there were a lot of tattoos in prison, there was also a lot of tattooing happening elsewhere which simply wasn’t recorded in the same way, skewing future generations' perceptions.

A collaboration between the universities of Liverpool, Sheffield, Sussex, Oxford and Tasmania has compiled these records into a database called the Digital Panopticon, which lists all the tattoos on British convicts between 1780 and 1925, including those shipped to Australia.

19 crimes wine
19 CRIMES wine called in a tattoo historian to share the facts about tats

Analysing the records, it was found that 80% of incarcerated men and women would have been decorated with tattoos by the early 20th century.

The study also unearthed quotes from prominent figures such as Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, who claimed in 1887 that tattoos are the “stigmata of the criminal man”, and 20th century modernist, Adolf Loos, who said that “the modern man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate”.

Dr. Matt Lodder is a tattoo historian and lecturer at the University of Essex
Dr. Matt Lodder is a tattoo historian and lecturer at the University of Essex

Dr Matt Lodder, Senior Lecturer at the University of Essex and an actual real-life tattoo historian says that prisoners’ tattoos often held genuine sentimental value, from referencing their profession to reminding them of a lover.

Tattooing at a basic level has hardly changed in several thousand years, and Dr. Lodder says that the so-called ‘convict-tattoos’ from the 18th century are simply symbols of human emotions which resonate with all of us.

He said: "Through their tattoos, these men and woman are revealed to be more than simply 'criminals', but human beings with rich inner lives, social connections, and deep, profound emotions familiar to us today.”

Delph Musquet
Delph Musquet is one of the artists who created new 18th century inspired prison tattoos
The top 10 most popular tattoo designs found on convicts in the 18th century:
  1. Anchor (15%)

  2. Woman (14%)

  3. Heart (8%)

  4. Man (6%)

  5. Star and Stars (6%)

  6. Sun (4%)

  7. Moon (4%)

  8. Mermaid (4%)

  9. Dots (3%)

  10. Ring (3%)

The research was commissioned by delicious Australian wine brand 19 CRIMES, you have probably seen their wines at the supermarket, they have sepia photos of convicts on the labels.

This weekend they were actually offering people FREE tatttoos at a pop-up parlour in London's Shoreditch dubbed CL(INK). Sadly I couldn't make it, but if I had I totally would have wanted the smoking goose or the nosy rat!

A lot of tattoo designs have stood the test of time due to the human emotions they represent
A lot of tattoo designs have stood the test of time due to the human emotions they represent

19 Crimes invited four brilliant artists to work with Dr Matt Lodder and create designs which embody the 18th century convict tattoo style, fused it with their own individual flair.

Delph Musquet and Priem were tattooing using a modern gun, while Connor McNeilly and Jack Brown were using a traditional stick and poke method.

Check out the flash sheets from each of the different artists below. Which one would you have picked? Tell us @sinisterisles on Twitter and Instagram.

Prieme (IG:

Delph Musquet (IG: @dealwithdolphin)

Connor McNeilly (IG: @gosick_tattoo)

Jack Brown (IG: @quickpoketattoo)


bottom of page