Nineteenth-Century Criminal Tattoos

A data exploration and visualisation blog

Tattooing has a long history, but the practice increased significantly in Britain and Australia in the nineteenth century, when a growing number of criminal convicts acquired tattoos. Their many meanings include expressions of love, hope, pain, defiance, fraternity, and religious commitment, and aspirations to be fashionable. As a largely voluntary practice, tattooing provides valuable evidence of non-elite voices which are otherwise difficult to locate in the historical record.

While tattooing has been the subject of a few studies, particularly of convicts transported to Tasmania (1802-53) and imprisoned in Ireland (1895-99), most research to date has been based on limited data and there is much that we still do not understand about the practice. While tattoos can be interpreted as expressions of convicts’ individuality and aspirations, official practices of recording tattoos when documenting their physical characteristics can be seen as a form of state control. It is unclear why convicts engaged in a practice which facilitated such control, and whether the increasing use of tattooing signalled the growth of a defiant criminal subculture, or of more inclusive cultural aspirations.

The Digital Panopticon, launched in September 2017, brings together fifty existing datasets of criminal justice records for reuse, linking convict records together to enable life course analysis of over 250,000 convicts. There are approximately 60,000 descriptions of tattooed convicts in the Digital Panopticon, but the information is not currently systematically accessible, as it is intermixed with other physical details, such as eye colour, scars, bodily shape and physical infirmities, often using extensive abbreviations and inconsistent punctuation:

Crucifix above elbow Joint rt arm deep dimple on chin Scar near outer corner rt eye Moon & 7 stars JW mermaid anchor JC MD JD TD & Cannon (Prop) inside rt arm (James Rees, transported to Tasmania in 1826)

In addition to the challenge of extracting relevant information concerning tattoos from the highly varied physical description fields in the Digital Panopticon, a second technical challenge exists in coping with the complexity of the multiple variables available, and in summarising such voluminous and diverse data.

Via Digital Panopticon’s ‘life archives’, information about tattoos can be linked to a large amount of other evidence about the convict, including their gender, age, occupation, religion, place of origin, type of crime committed, previous convictions, and punishment. The Digital Panopticon has experimented with a number of visualisations to summarise this data and detect patterns, notably Sankey diagrams, pie charts, and specially developed ‘life charts’, but these formats are inadequate to the task of displaying complex multivariate data about convicts and their tattoos. The Tattoos project will use this blog to explore and experiment with techniques for visualising complex historical datasets.

The project will run from November 2018 to October 2019. Activities will include a data hackathon in 2019, and the newly-created tattoos dataset will be released as open data.

Further reading


The project is funded by British Academy/Jisc Digital Research in the Humanities

The project directors are Robert Shoemaker, University of Sheffield, and Zoe Alker, University of Liverpool.

Project technical development is carried out by the Digital Humanities Institute | SheffieldProject webpage.

This blog has been built by Sharon Howard, with a little help from RStudio, Blogdown, Markdown and Github.


This website is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.