Tattoos and Royalty: A Colourful Tradition

Grand Duke Alexis 800

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When Captain James Cook returned home to England from his second exploration of the Tahitian Islands in 1744, he unknowingly brought with him a permanent change to European culture in the form of two native guides and interpreters named Omai and Tupia.

These men bore traditional Polynesian tattoos, and Europeans were fascinated by the exotic primitiveness that they represented. Omai and Tupia quickly became a source of paid entertainment at local English pubs, museums, and fairs.

From Stigma to Status Symbol

Although a stigma against tattoos began during the 18th century due to the fact that they were viewed as “marks of savagery,” and that those that bore them were uncivilized and inferior, the original fascination not only remained, but actually grew amongst the working class.

Sailors started to get their own tattoos while on journeys to exotic lands, and those in the working class saw their tattoos as an expression of adventure and free spirit, and they soon began to get their own tattoos in an effort to capture some of the same sentiment.

With money and means to travel, monarchs and the upper classes weren’t satisfied with just mimicking the adventurous spirit portrayed in the presence of tattoos. They took things one step further by arranging to actually turn the tattooing process itself into an adventure, and travelled all over the world to have tattoos done by the masters of the art themselves.

Tattoos Amongst the Upper Classes

In 1862, King Edward VII journeyed to the Holy Land to receive his first tattoo from a local master artist. The trip to have a Jerusalem cross placed on his arm made such an impact on him, he continued to tell the tale for years to come, and so impressed his sons that they made their own visit to the same tattoo artist 20 years later to have their own tattoos done.

In Russia, Grand Duke Alexis also made regular trips throughout the world to have his own tattoos done by master artists, including a journey to Japan to get an elaborate tattoo of a dragon that covered his entire right arm. The Grand Duke so enjoyed his tattoo journeys, he continued to take more and more, and so became the most tattooed man in all of Europe at the end of the 19th century.

Lady Randolph Churchill, the mother of Winston Churchill, also took part in the tattoo trend amongst the upper classes by having a small snake tattoo placed around her left wrist, although she was known to hide the tattoo with a bracelet while out amongst the more “proper” social circles around Wales. Sir Winston himself had an anchor tattoo on one of his forearms.

The draw of tattoos amongst royalty didn’t slow down in the 20th century. If anything, it sped up with the appearance of tattoos on some of the world’s most famous monarchs.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was very proud of the “lucky” snake tattoo on his right hip, although it turned out to be not so lucky after all when it caught an assassin’s bullet and caused his death in 1914.

In Spain, King Alfonso XIII and his son, the Count of Barcelona both had tattoos. King Frederik IX of Denmark was also heavily tattooed, with multiple anchor tattoos, a Chinese dragon and his family crest found on various parts of his body.

Tattoos and Royals Today

The fascination with tattoos has continued on in today’s royalty, despite the old stigma remaining in place. Some of the most popular and influential modern royals have tattoos.

There is photographic proof that Princess Stephanie of Monaco has at least 6 tattoos on various parts of her body, including her upper back and ankle, and Juliana Guillermo, daughter of Princess Christina of the Netherlands has a small tattoo on her ankle. The royal rumor mill has also put out the word that Prince Harry, Prince Charles, and Zara Philips, daughter of Princess Anne, all have at least one tattoo. ?

Although there tend to be strict dress codes in place at royal social functions, such as the garden parties at Buckingham Palace and race days at the Ascot, there is no ban on tattoos. In fact, tattoos are seen as lifestyle choices and are welcomed, although many royals and celebrities may choose to make an effort to keep their tattoos hidden while in the spotlight.

From a storied start of social stigma, to a place of status amongst monarchs, tattoos have played an important role in European history. They have embodied a sense of adventure, free spirit, and tradition amongst the working and upper classes alike, and continue to be a source of fascination for both those that choose to wear them, and those that choose to simply sit back and observe the continuation of a colorful tradition.