Convict Tattoos: Marked Men and Women of Australia

At least thirty-seven per cent of male convicts and fifteen per cent of female convicts were tattooed by the time they arrived in the penal colonies, making Australians quite possibly the world’s most heavily tattooed English-speaking people of the nineteenth century.

Each convict’s details, including their tattoos, were recorded when they disembarked, providing an extensive physical account of Australia’s convict men and women.

Simon Barnard has meticulously combed through those records to reveal a rich pictorial history. Convict Tattoos explores various aspects of tattooing—from the symbolism of tattoo motifs to inking methods, from their use as means of identification and control to expressions of individualism and defiance — providing a fascinating glimpse of the lives of the people behind the records.

Inked: Where did the interest in convicts begin for you?
Simon Barnard: In the Tasmanian bush, when I was a boy.

What then led you to tattoos from our early days? Reading through the records detailing convicts. I wanted to know why they were tattooed, what their tattoos meant, and where their tattoos originated.

What was the most fascinating thing to you about the convicts’ tattoos? The insight they provide into the convicts’ thoughts, feelings and experiences—their humanity.

What sort of colonial artifacts have you collected, is there anything tattooed related? Items range from headwear and cooking equipment to a cat o’ nine tails and love tokens. The imagery pricked into love tokens shows us what convict tattoos would have looked like. I also have some acetate stencils used for tattooing that belonged to Professor W. M. Lyons, a prominent tattooist born in 1872, in Melbourne.

It’s fascinating that 15% of female convicts had tattoos, was there any common markings for females only? Women were mostly tattooed with the names and initials of loved ones. Sarah Sheldon was tattooed with initials, a heart pierced with darts, and a woman and a man holding a bottle, a glass and a pipe. Like the people depicted in her tattoos, Sheldon was partial to a drink. She was repeatedly punished for absconding, being drunk and hanging out with no-goods. The authorities deemed her an ‘improper person to be in a family with young children’. Eventually she married another convict; Daniel Forbes. Forbes was tattooed with an angel, a mermaid, a heart pierced with darts and initials, and he, too, was something of a boozehound.

Was it more common for a certain type of convict to have tattoos – thieves over prostitutes etc.?
Sure. Soldiers and sailors were more inclined to tattoos and more likely to bear patriotic and seafaring imagery. Women with a history of prostitution had a higher frequency of tattooing than the general female convict populace. And a faction known as the ‘Forty Thieves’ were said to have signified their allegiance with a quincunx of dots pricked into the webbing between the left forefinger and thumb.

What’s next for you book wise? A book about a convict pirate named William Swallow. It’s pegged for release next year.

Why will we all want to pick up a copy of  Convict Tattoos? You will learn about some of the classic tattoo motifs—what they may mean and which ones were more popular among people during the nineteenth century. You’ll also get an insight into the miseries and merriments experienced by our convict ancestors. And there are lots of cool photographs, including pictures of branding equipment and preserved pieces of human skin, some of which were photographed for the first time for the book.

Grab your copy and learn more about Australian tattoo history here!