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The James T. Callow Folklore Archive

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THE CUSTOM OF TATTOOING

SAILORS ADOPTED THIS PRIMITIVE PRACTICE OF MARKING THE SKIN IN
A DESIRE TO ASSURE IDENTITY IN CASE OF DEATH BY SHIPWRECK OR
DROWNING. IT SEEMS TO HAVE ORIGINATED AMONG THE NATIVES OF THE
SOUTH PACIFIC AND SPREAD AS FAR NORTH AS JAPAN, WHERE IT WAS
BROUGHT TO HIGH, ARTISTIC DEVELOPMENT UNTIL PROHIBITED BY LAW.
ROMAN CATHOLIC SAILORS WERE THE FIRST TO ADOPT IT, HAVING A
CRUCIFIX TATTOOED ON THEIR BODIES SO THAT IN CASE OF SERIOUS
INJURY OR ILLNESS THEY MIGHT RECEIVE THE LAST RITES OF THEIR
CHURCH AND BURIAL IN CONSECRATED GROUND.
"AND MANY SAILORS, NOT CATHOLICS, WERE ANXIOUS TO HAVE THE
CRUCIFIX PAINTED ON THEM, OWING TO A CURIOUS SUPERSTITION OF
THEIRS. THEY AFFIRM--SOME OF THEM--THAT IF YOU HAVE THAT MARK
TATTOOED ON ALL FOUR LIMBS, YOU MIGHT FALL OVERBOAD AMONG SEVEN
HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-FIVE THOUSAND WHITE SHARKS, ALL DINNERLESS,
AND NOT ONE OF THEM WOULD SO MUCH AS DARE TO SMELL AT YOUR
LITTLE FINGER."

Submitter comment: THIS QUOTE IS TAKEN FROM MELVILLE'S "COMPLETE WORKS" (LONDON,
1922). IT IS TAKEN FROM THE "WHITE JACKET" STORY. CAPTAIN
LUMAS HIMSELF HAD A TATTOO ON HIS CHEST AND CLAIMS THAT HE
ALSO HAD ONE ON EACH OF HIS FOUR LIMBS BUT HIS WIFE MADE HIM
REMOVE THEM.

Where learned: MICHIGAN ; MACKINAW ISLAND

Subject headings: 686 Fourths / Quarters
CUSTOM FESTIVAL -- F535
ART CRAFT ARCHITECTURE -- Human or animal body Tattoo
BELIEF -- Sign Geometric figure Cross and its various modifications

Date learned: 09-00-1963

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PROVERB

THE EMPTY VESSEL MAKES THE GREATEST SOUND.

Where learned: MICHIGAN ; DETROIT

Subject headings: ART CRAFT ARCHITECTURE -- Human or animal body Tattoo
PROVERB -- Proverbial Metaphor

Date learned: 09-00-1973

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TATTOO

MY FATHER, WHO GREW UP IN LEBANON, HAD A CLOVER-LIKE TATTOO ON EACH
OF HIS TEMPLES. HE EXPLAINED THAT WHEN HE WAS A CHILD, HE HAD VERY
POOR EYESIGHT AND WAS BELIEVED TO BE GOING BLIND. HIS GRANDMOTHER
TOOK HIM TO A MAN WHO GAVE HIM THE TATTOOS. HE SWORE HIS VISION WAS
RETURNED TO NORMAL. HE NEVER WORE GLASSES UNTIL HE WAS ABOUT
50 YEARS OLD.

Submitter comment: MY FATHER WAS BORN IN THE UNITED STATES, BUT LIVED IN LEBANON
FROM THE TIME HE WAS A YEAR OLD UNTIL HE WAS TWENTY AND CAME TO THE
U.S. HE DIED IN DEARBORN, MICHIGAN IN 1980.

Where learned: MICHIGAN ; DEARBORN

Subject headings: Favorites
PROSE NARRATIVE -- Body part Senses Eyes, evil eye
ART CRAFT ARCHITECTURE -- Human or animal body Tattoo
BELIEF -- Plant
BELIEF -- Method of Curing

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