Wednesday, October 30, 2013

O'Connell's Back(story)

           The Introduction of Dr. Ellis’ Tattooing the World touches precisely on (and further explores) the topic of my post last week – the incorporation of outsiders into the tattooing tradition. The story of James O’Connell is a fascinating one, especially since my father spent years doing research on the Australian-Irish connection (I delved into O’Connell’s biographical book a bit more and learned that at the time of the shipwreck, he was en route either to or from Sydney, it’s unclear), giving me a personal interest in O’Connell’s story. However, two other elements in his tale struck me; first, that his being tattooed by women so affected American reactions to his markings due to gender inequality at the time, and second, just how similar the beginning of his biographical account is to O.E. Parker’s story.
            While it is easy to see why such unusually extensive (for the time period, at least) tattooing may have alarmed conservative Americans, the negative reaction to women as tattoo artists is absurd, though oddly logical in light of the strict gender roles at the time. The fact that any form of non-sexual penetration would even affect gender roles and hence be problematic in the eyes of traditionalists shows both how much further Americans (though I fear “Americans” may be an over-generalization) have been able to open their minds in the century since O’Connell, and how much more forward-thinking O’Connell’s “savages” were than the “civilized” people of the United States. In light of the reactions, however, I do find it commendable that O’Connell chose to be honest about the women who had tattooed rather than twist the story to make himself seem more masculine, or whatever it was that the traditionalists believed he was not after being “penetrated” by a woman.
            On a different note, I saw a striking resemblance between O’Connell’s story and Parker’s reflections on his own tattoo obsession. While there is the obvious connection – Parker becomes enthralled by the concept after attending a circus and seeing a tattooed man, an occupation O’Connell himself seems to have pioneered – O’Connell’s own introduction includes a similar reflection. His first memory, he claims, is of attending a circus as a small child, like Parker. Though he does not see a tattooed man at the time, he is taken in by the atmosphere and performers, saying (when told that his mother is one of them) “I would not have exchanged my parentage for that of a duke.”[1] While their inspirations and motivations are different, both Parker’s and O’Connell’s experiences highlight a certain quality that may explain both of their affinities for tattoos. It seems that, as Dr. Ellis also suggests in the Introduction, they both, on some level, harbor a deep desire to perform, to shock or to dazzle their spectators. The only difference is that O’Connell performed for thousands through his act, while despite his best efforts, Parker could not dazzle his audience of one.

[1] The Life and Adventures of James F. O’Connell the Tattooed Man, by James F. O’Connell; 1845; W. Applegate, New York.

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