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What Dennis Rodman, Kate Moss and a 5,000-year-old Alpine iceman have in common

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What Dennis Rodman, Kate Moss and a 5,000-year-old Alpine iceman have in common

Book Review

Painted People: 5,000 Years of Tattooed History from Sailors and Socialites to Mummies and Kings

By Matt Lodder
William Collins: 352 pages, $21.99
If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookstores.

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One of the most stubborn misconceptions about tattooing is that it was born in Polynesia and imported to the West by Captain Cook in 1768, then trickled down to the masses over the next century, settling into military and criminal subcultures until its late-20th century resurrection in the middle class. It’s not only false but also eclipses a much broader and more complex global heritage.

Matt Lodder’s “Painted People: 5,000 Years of Tattooed History from Sailors and Socialites to Mummies and Kings” brings that truth to life in 21 riveting stories. Lodder, a scholar of tattoo history, doesn’t argue for the artistry or legitimacy of tattoos but rather shows — in lively and accessible language — how they serve as points of entry into so many aspects of culture: history and anthropology, sports and fashion, war and medicine. Lodder examines their material and spiritual origins as well as their cultural impact.

“I want to show you that tattooing connects us across historical time and geographical space, revealing details about human experience in the process,” he writes.

Though it’s organized by period, from the ancient world to the new millennium, “Painted People” is not a chronology. Tattoo history is not linear, and its timelines are always shifting.

The book opens with the story of Ötzi, one of the oldest known tattooed humans, whose more-than-5,000-year-old body was found preserved in the Italian alps in 1991. It also details the recent discovery of 3,000- to 5,000-year-old tattoo tools in Tennessee, which bumped the origins of North American tattooing back a full millennium.

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Both cases present tantalizing mysteries: Because most of Ötzi’s dozens of abstract tattoos appear in places where only a right-handed person could reach, it’s possible that he tattooed himself. And when chiseled turkey bones were unearthed on Tennessee land once inhabited by the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Shawnee and Yuchi peoples, archaeologists weren’t sure if they were for tattooing, medicinal uses or leatherworking. In what Lodder calls “an act of gonzo archaeology,” the scientists carved their own needles from turkey bones, dipped them in ink, tattooed themselves and concluded, based on microscopic examination of their “wear patterns,” that the ancient needles only could have been used to tattoo.

(Courtesy of HarperCollins)

“Painted People” is such a robust miscellany that it’s possible to dip in anywhere and find something astonishing: the artist Lucian Freud tattooing swallows on supermodel Kate Moss; a Tang-era Chinese text describing a peacock gallbladder used as tattoo ink; North Korean prisoners of war forcibly marked with anti-communist slogans; Christian and Islamic pilgrimage tattoos thriving in 16th century Jerusalem; and, in a spasm of Cold War anxiety, Indiana schoolchildren tattooed with their blood types under their left armpit, just as Nazi soldiers had been during World War II. The location, Lodder explains, was “least likely to be seriously burned or slashed by flying debris.”

Not every story involves blood and ink: In 1929, following a tattoo craze among young people in the U.S. and Britain, the designer Elsa Schiaparelli created custom swimsuits featuring patterns from an array of classic tattoos copied, she said, “from the manly chests of French mariners.” Knitted into “sunburn”-colored fabric, the garments made beachgoers appear nearly naked but for the mermaids and pierced hearts hugging their torsos. “The hypermasculine associations of tattooing” suited the moment, Lodder writes, “as androgyny and boyishness had become de rigueur.”

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Like many folk art and Indigenous practices, says Lodder, tattooing tends to be fundamentally “conservative, preserving imagery and iconography over centuries, if not millennia … often communicating quickly and bluntly rather base and universal emotions about fear, hope, and familial ties.” Even custom tattooing in the West, he notes, “almost inevitably” signifies group rather than individual identity.

The 1990s NBA star Dennis Rodman, by contrast, used his ink — along with his piercings, dresses and technicolor hair — to mark himself as “a true individual in a deeply conservative culture.” Like soldiers and convicts whose individual identities are disguised by uniforms, athletes have few options for creative self-expression. But basketball players’ exposed skin provided an alluring public canvas that Rodman filled with tattoos, inspiring generations of athletes to do the same. His passion for the art form also helped integrate the white-dominated tattoo world, where for too long Black customers had been told their skin was too dark to carry legible designs.

When Rodman sued a company selling T-shirts mimicking his tattooed torso, he prefigured a 21st century tattoo problem: fair use. The appearance of custom tattoo designs in films, fashion and video games has been legally contested. But, Lodder asks, if a finished tattoo itself infringes on a copyright, how can a “cease and desist” order be enforced? Likewise, what are the legal implications of a hacked numeric decryption code tattooed on a man’s body and then photographed and shared online? Though tattooing has changed little technically since ancient times — apart from the 19th century invention of the tattoo machine — modern technology is investing it with thorny new implications.

The tattooist Ed Hardy once said that tattoos are like “little vents” into the wearer’s psyche. Lodder presents them as portals to whole peoples. Some of their practices were canceled by colonialism; others, preserved in ice as Ötzi was, are dissolving with the melting permafrost, taking the visual keys to ancient cosmologies with them. Deeply researched and elegantly written, “Painted People” is a moving, entertaining tribute to the people — and peoples — behind this underexamined medium.

Margot Mifflin is a professor at the City University of New York and the author of “The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman.”

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Kim Kardashian Posts Photo with Taylor Swift's Frenemy Karlie Kloss

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After years of documenting Jewish food traditions, Joan Nathan focuses on her family's

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After years of documenting Jewish food traditions, Joan Nathan focuses on her family's

After decades creating and publishing recipes, cookbook author Joan Nathan has released what she said is likely her final book, a cookbook and memoir called “My Life in Recipes.”

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After decades creating and publishing recipes, cookbook author Joan Nathan has released what she said is likely her final book, a cookbook and memoir called “My Life in Recipes.”

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Joan Nathan has spent her life exploring in the kitchen, trying new dishes and recipes all year. But every spring, for the Passover Seder, she sticks with a menu that follows her own family’s traditions. The holiday starts tonight.

“I think Passover tells us who we are, and it tells us, this is my family sharing with other families. I get chills every year at Passover, because I realized that it started in ancient Israel. I mean, it’s in the Bible!”

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Joan Nathan chops up fresh herbs for her soup and rolls matzo balls in her kitchen in Washington, D.C.

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Joan Nathan chops up fresh herbs for her soup and rolls matzo balls in her kitchen in Washington, D.C.

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Nathan has written a dozen cookbooks, documenting how food traditions evolved as Jews wandered all over the world through the centuries. Now in her 80s, her new book is her most personal work yet, excavating her own culinary history in a combination memoir and cookbook called My Life in Recipes.

“I’ve been more nervous about this book than any book… It’s sort of going into my life, you know?”

Cookbook author Joan Nathan looks through old family recipe books.

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Cookbook author Joan Nathan looks through old family recipe books.

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Nathan spoke with All Things Considered in her Washington, D.C. kitchen on a late March day, while she prepped a version of a dish she’s been eating since childhood: chicken matzo ball soup. And, like many Jewish mothers and grandmothers before her, that afternoon, she fretted over whether the matzo balls would turn out the way she wanted them to. Every family has their own recipe, whether they’re light, fluffy, hard, dense.

“So my mother’s, hers were al dente,” Nathan said. “And my mother-in-law’s were very light. You know, she was straight from Poland.”

As with every immigration story, these family recipes evolved as people relocated, fleeing wars or seeking a better life for their kids. One example is a special combination Nathan adds to her own matzo balls.

Nathan prepares matzo ball soup in her kitchen.

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Nathan prepares matzo ball soup in her kitchen.

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“I’d added ginger [and] nutmeg, which I knew was what my father’s family would have used in Germany,” she explained. “Ginger nutmeg was a very common condiment combination in the 19th and early 20th century.”

For Nathan, cooking matzo ball soup for Passover, or any Jewish holiday, just feels comfortable – like home.

“It’s the smell,” she said. “You just know that smell. Like my mother’s brisket, I know; like challah, I know. I love those smells. It knows that you’re at home, that there are people that care.”

Nathan pulls two loaves of challah out of the oven at her home in Washington, D.C.

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Nathan pulls two loaves of challah out of the oven at her home in Washington, D.C.

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While the soup simmers, Joan walks over to the living room where boxes of letters and books are laid out. They’re some of the artifacts that she’s uncovered from her family, including handwritten recipe books in German. One from her great-grandmother dates back to 1927, written in purple ink full of recipes for desserts like kuchen and caramel pudding. Nathan’s new book is full of her letters, diary entries and parts of these family artifacts.

Nathan looks through old family recipe books including one that dates back to 1927.

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Nathan looks through old family recipe books including one that dates back to 1927.

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This book is also a love story. Joan Nathan writes about her courtship and marriage of 45 years to her late husband, Allan Gerson. He died just before the pandemic. She says writing this book felt almost like a form of therapy.

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“It was my savior. I would just write. And I would include him in my life, you know? So it was a way of really making him part of my life. And I think it was really helpful to me. It really gave me strength.”

A photo of her family hangs in the living rooms as cookbook author Joan Nathan prepares matzo ball soup in the kitchen of her home in Washington, D.C.

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A photo of her family hangs in the living rooms as cookbook author Joan Nathan prepares matzo ball soup in the kitchen of her home in Washington, D.C.

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My Life in Recipes also includes anecdotes from Nathan’s prolific career, her world travels and stories of her collaborations with food luminaries that include Julia Child.

“Julia – I had her 90th birthday in this – she was sitting right here on this couch. I had a party for her. She’s somebody who just kept living,” Nathan remembered.

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“And she said to me, at 90, why should I quit if I’m doing what I like to do? And she made me realize a few things: Have people that are younger around you as you get older, be positive, don’t talk about being uncomfortable or whatever. And also, to write thank-you notes to everybody.”

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Can Celine Work Without Hedi Slimane?

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Can Celine Work Without Hedi Slimane?
After growing the brand’s annual sales to nearly €2.5 billion, the star designer has been locked in a thorny contract negotiation with owner LVMH that could lead to his exit, sources say. BoF breaks down what Slimane brought to Celine and what his departure could mean.
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