A young German man with heavily tattooed chest and arms, included in Krauss’s 1904 essay on erotic tattoos

Sex Symbols: Tattoos, Science, and Queer Visual Culture around 1900

What is queer about tattoos? Can sexual identity be inked onto one’s skin? Since at least the mid-nineteenth century, researchers have been asking similar questions. Historically, the relationship between sexuality and tattooing was of central importance to scientists concerned with defining homosexual identity, and for good reason: tattoos were a cornerstone of queer European visual culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Scientific Perspectives on Queer Tattooing

In January 2019, the International Journal of Dermatology published a report entitled “Are tattoos associated with negative health‐related outcomes and risky behaviors?” In it, the authors of the study (Karoline Mortensen, Michael T. French, and Andrew R. Timming) conclude that individuals with tattoos are more likely than those without to have mental health issues, spend time in jail, and engage in “risky” behaviors, such as smoking and having multiple sexual partners. They were also, according to the study, far more likely to be homosexual than their non-tattooed counterparts. As parting advice, the researchers suggest that “dermatologists, healthcare providers, and public health advocates should recognize that having (a) tattoo(s) is a potential marker for mental health issues and risky behaviors.”

The study seems to contain an implicit admonition, which, for scholars of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sexuality, reads as eerily similar to scientific writing on tattooing practices from over a century ago. Indeed, tattoos were at the forefront of early scientific attempts to identify and typify ‘criminal’ individuals. The pioneering criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne maintained an interest in criminal tattoos, as did Cesare Lombroso, whose 1876 text “L’uomo delinquente” (“The Criminal Man”) included numerous illustrated charts filled with line drawings of the tattoos that he observed on the bodies of murderers, sex workers, and homosexuals.

Following its translation into German in 1896, Lombroso’s text ignited debate amongst German-speaking researchers and physicians. Respondents to Lombroso’s theories included the Austrian criminologist Hans Gross and the German sexual scientist Albert Moll, who included many reproductions of Lombroso’s illustrations in his “Handbuch der Sexualwissenschaften” (1912). Both writers, in addition to noting that tattoos typically were found on individuals of a certain ‘sensual’ nature, highlighted the prevalence of the custom among pederasts and other queer men. Many of these tattoos were obscene, they noted, and were often found in places where tattoos ought not go (namely, the penis or the buttocks). The tattoos were not always explicitly erotic, however; inked drawings of clasped hands often denoted homosexuality, as did daggers and snakes. The collation of these queer tattoo patterns, neatly organized in Vorlagenbücher, came to form a kind of iconographic program, a pictorial code that the savvy researcher or police officer could use to identify and survey men who had sex with other men.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many contemporary studies of queer erotic tattooing practices also found their way into anthropological journals like “Anthropophyteia”, a privately printed journal of sexual ethnology and customs founded by Friedrich Krauss that ran from 1904 to 1913. In these journals and others, researchers frequently positioned queer tattoos in relation to emergent research on body adornment in ‘primitive’ Pacific Islander communities and Darwinian theories of sexual selection. As these ethnologists argued, erotic tattoos served the critical function of luring sexual partners and signaling desire to potential mates.

Tattoos as Queer Visual Culture

But tattoos were not merely signposts for criminologists and anthropologists; they were also critically important to the pictorial communication networks of homosexual men themselves, serving as discrete signifiers of subjectivity that allowed them to actively partake in queer communities. More often than not, it was men from traditionally ‘hypermasculine’ backgrounds who participated in tattoo culture: soldiers, seamen, workers, and tradesmen, some of whom had sex with other men only occasionally or circumstantially. Tattoos functioned to create community amongst men who were typically excluded from participating in more ‘respectable’ queer circles due to their socio-economic status, evidencing a form of queer visual culture that circulated in military barracks, shipping ports, and disreputable tattoo studios rather than in museums, universities, and theaters.

Due to the fact that studies of queer tattoo culture are often found in medical case studies or police records, the narratives we find tend to be highly personal and individuated. Take, for example, Friedrich Krauss’s case study of a 22-year-old named “W.B.”, a patient from Korneuburg near Vienna. Krauss notes that W.B. was heavily tattooed and provides a brief vita sexualis of the patient. Though he seemed to express a genuine aversion to his own sex, he was unlucky with women. Krauss traced his patient’s preoccupation with tattoos to his experiences seeing nude tattooed men in public baths and notes the homosexual inclinations of the young man’s tattoo artist – a 31-year-old engraver, wall painter, and carpenter known as “R.M.”. Krauss claimed that the relationship between W.B. and R.M. was typical: Homosexual tattoo artists tended to initiate relationships with younger men based on the premise of tattooing and “chain” (“fesseln”) the young men to them for the duration of the tattooing process. Such quasi-romantic relationships between older tattoo artists and younger tattooed men, the reader is invited to believe, were relatively commonplace in lower-class homosexual communities.

Another narrative, unearthed by the historian Jason Crouthamel, relates the story of one Albert H., a former soldier who fought in the First World War. After being arrested for soliciting sex from men in Berlin in 1939, Albert told the police of his experiences with homosexual intercourse during his time in a garrison near Wittenberg. He was later captured while serving on the front and learned the art of tattooing from a sailor held in the same POW camp. Upon his return after the war, Albert began to cruise bars in working-class neighborhoods in Berlin while also advertising his services as a tattoo artist. He came under suspicion after being spotted one too many times drinking beer with young men before leaving with them to go back to his apartment – only, he told the police unconvincingly, so that he could tattoo them.

One can easily imagine tattoo artists like R.M. or Albert H. pricking clasped male hands or phallic serpents into the skin of other queer young men with a needle and lampblack. Unfortunately, one can also imagine such men outed and humiliated, their tattooed bodies put on display for observation by physicians and criminologists who regarded their tattoos as little more than an admission of sexual perversion. Tattoos were nearly always viewed as evidence of degeneracy in populations already consigned to the margins – criminals, prostitutes, and pederasts – and rarely examined as the powerful building blocks of community that they were (and, indeed, continue to be) for queer individuals.

Marking communities as prone to ‘risky behaviors’ and mental illness because of their tattoos, as Mortensen, French, and Timming do in their study, perpetuates a number of problematic tropes formulated in the mid-nineteenth century and continues a harmful pattern of pathologizing practices of identity construction and community building central to queer culture. That, to me, feels like risky behavior.

Secondary literature

Crouthamel, J. “Homosexuality and Comradeship: Destabilizing the Hegemonic Masculine Ideal in Nazi Germany.” Central European History, 51 (2018): 419-439.

Mortensen, K., French, M.T. and Timming, A.R. “Are tattoos associated with negative health‐related outcomes and risky behaviors?” International Journal Dermatology, v. 58 no. 3 (2019): 816-824.

Spector, S. Violent Sensations: Sex, Crime, and Utopia in Vienna and Berlin, 1860-1914. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.


Ty Vanover is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. His dissertation research focuses on the centrality of drawings to modern scientific conceptions of male homosexuality. He is currently a guest researcher at the Zentrum für transdisziplinäre Geschlechterstudien at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

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